On a 4-1 vote, City Commission agrees to try a ‘living seawall’ pilot program on the O’Leary’s waterfront

Design contract awarded to Sarasota firm, with total cost of that work and construction estimated at less than $300,000

A ‘living seawall’ will be created in front of O’Leary’s on Sarasota Bay in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

To Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody, it just seemed “like a frivolous expenditure.”

Nonetheless, his colleagues agreed this week with a staff proposal to use some of the city’s settlement from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to fund a pilot “living seawall” on the O’Leary’s shoreline in Bayfront Park.

The goal, city Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes explained to the commission on July 17, is to soften the deflection of waves into the bay. Traditional, flat seawalls, she continued, can produce negative environmental impacts. For example, she said, various organisms are unable to attach to those structures. Additionally, Freeman-Montes noted, the deflection of wave energy back into the bay creates turbidity that inhibits seagrass growth.

Her memo to the commission for the July 17 meeting notes that the city began installing a seawall on City Island in front of O’Leary’s on June 5; the goal is “to protect public land from further erosion,” as well as to reclaim a portion of the beach that was lost “as a result of destructive storm events.” The living seawall, she continued, would be in front of and attached to the new, conventional seawall.

About two years ago, Freeman-Montes explained, when city staff members began working on means of dealing with the problems at O’Leary’s, they wanted to learn more about alternatives to a regular seawall.

(From left) David Boswell, Stevie Freeman-Montes and Todd Barber appear before the City Commission on July 17. News Leader photo

City Manager Tom Barwin noted that when the City Commission first began addressing the erosion issue at O’Leary’s, “some of the trees were about ready to topple over,” near the dining area. Some of the city commissioners at that time were opposed to a traditional seawall because of the environmental concerns, he added. That was why the staff decided to advertise a Request for Proposals for the project. “It’s just taken a little while longer than we thought” to reach this point, Barwin said.

Freeman-Montes wrote in the backup agenda material for the July 17 City Commission meeting that the total project cost “will not exceed $300,000.” Along with about $100,000 out of the Deepwater Horizon funds, the city will use penny surtax revenue to pay for the project, she noted. The expense of Phase I — the design work the City Commission approved on July 17 on a 4-1 vote — is $45,918, she added.

Mote Marine Laboratory will collaborate with the city in a study of the project, she wrote in the agenda material.

Boats ride at anchor in Sarasota’s mooring field, adjacent to O’Leary’s. File photo

Reef Innovations of Sarasota was the only firm to respond to the Request for Proposals, David Boswell, general manager of the city’s Purchasing Department, said during the July 17 commission meeting. However, given the fact that this is a relatively new technology, he told the board members, the single bid was not unexpected. “We did do some very heavy due diligence on this,” he pointed out, “to make sure we were getting viable pricing on it. Generally, we will accept one proposal if we feel like we’re getting a good economical price.”

It is not prudent, he added, to waste taxpayer money by pursuing a subsequent Request for Proposals if there is no expectation that will lead to additional bids.

When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked whether any grant funds might be available to assist with the expense of the living seawall, Freeman-Montes replied, “I’m not aware right now of any grants that this project would qualify for.” However, she said, given the fact that the commission will have to approve a construction project after the design work has been completed, staff can search for grants.

With the reality of sea level rise, Barwin pointed out, “we have to protect our various shorelines more sturdily and aggressively than we have in the past.” This project will enable staff to determine whether the living seawall will be a better option for other parts of the city’s shoreline in the future, he added.

Questions and answers

Commissioner Hagen Brody. News Leader photo

Although the contract was listed for action on the City Commission’s Consent Agenda 1 of routine business items, Brody pulled it for discussion.

In response to Brody’s questions, Todd Barber, founder of the Reef Ball Foundation, pointed out that riprap can be placed in front of a regular seawall, but “the rocks move around, and they’re really hard for kids to walk on. They’re really not tourist-friendly.” (The foundation has been working with the city as a consultant on the project, according to the Request for Proposals.)

The living seawall would be an attraction to city visitors, with artistic elements added to the top of it, Barber said. The traditional seawall was necessary, he noted, because “we were actually going to lose O’Leary’s [as a result of the shoreline erosion].” Because of the boats in the mooring field adjacent to O’Leary’s, Barber continued, an offshore breakwater could not constructed to try to remedy the situation.

“I’ve been living here 25 years,” Barber told the commission, “and [the O’Leary’s waterfront] is one of our key gems. … We’ve got to keep it beautiful.” Children enjoy coming down to the water to see the dolphins and crabs, he pointed out.

When Brody asked where the idea for the living seawall originated, Barber explained, “The Reef Ball Foundation is an international nonprofit that’s been working for 25 years around the world.” It has created artificial reefs to restore about half-a-percent of all the reefs that have been destroyed, he added.

His foundation formed a separate division about seven years ago, Barber said, to plant red mangroves on shorelines to soften the wave energy deflected back into the water. However, he pointed out, not everyone likes red mangroves, the plants do require maintenance in the form of trimming and some soils are not suitable for the mangroves. Thus, the division’s staff came up with the idea of a softening system that would be a compromise between a true living shoreline and a hardened structure.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. News Leader photo

“It just evolved over time,” Barber added, calling it “a fantastic solution.”

“I don’t think we should do this at this time,” Brody said. The money coming out of the city’s Capital Improvement Program budget could be used instead for “a lot of pressing projects,” he added.

Referring to the O’Leary’s shoreline, Brody continued, “We’re building a seawall there anyway, which is [in] a very, very, very small area among hundreds of yards of seawalls in either direction, so it’s basically just completing that seawall that already is in existence.”

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert disagreed with Brody’s view on the issue, saying she felt the project would enable the city to determine whether it should pursue similar work in other areas. “I think this is a better alternative.”

Alpert made the motion to approve the contract, with Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch seconding it.