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February 10, 1998


by David Underhill

This is an affront to the holiness of the almighty auto. How else to explain the reaction to the notion of a path along the Mobile waterfront?

What! A ribbon of turf marked and inviting for retro specimens who think homo sapiens reared up on its hind feet to walk! Everybody knows the purpose of this posture is to have one foot on the gas, the other poised to brake or clutch, and the forepaws free to steer, honk, surf the radio channels, dial the cell phone, flip off the cut off veering from the next lane, and twiddle the thumbs while snared in our most democratic communal institution: the traffic jam. It treats everyone equally.

But a shoreline trail is derided as elitist -- as if walking, jogging, biking, or roller blading were snobbish pursuits requiring pricy equipment and instruction. It is dismissed as frivolous and a frill -- as if simple and healthy outings along the waterfront were a waste compared to couch potatoing, bar hopping, spectator sporting, or compulsive shopping. It is damned as a dollar gobbler -- as if any other facility could offer more folks access at less initial expense and lower maintenance.

Even worse, plans for the Crepe Myrtle Trail, as the lonely advocates have named it, include a (gasp!) public pier reaching into the bay.

Imagine! People could come there with no justification except that they are citizens who desire to stroll, fish, swim, picnic, watch a sunset over the water, inhale fresh air (if any). These would be folks who lacked the infantile mania to devote their short span on earth to suctioning as much moola as possible into their private accounts. Or who lacked the foresight and prudence to be born into families that had previously done so. Except for such failings they would already own a stretch of the shore. Give them a pier to enjoy at will, and they'll lose the incentive to corral bucks enough to buy a waterfront lot (at $3,000/foot or whatever the current stratospheric rate is) and exclude all others. The American Dream.

Preserve morality, family values, and individual initiative! Abort that public pier before it can be born! (But proceed full-speed-ahead with the Alabama State Docks' proposed $8-10 million bulk liquid cargo pier a few miles away. Connect it by pipeline with the present and future neighboring chemical plants. Then the execs and shareholders who profit most from this umbilical public-private kinship will be able to buy even more of the shore for their businesses or houses and exclude all others. The American Wet Dream.)

Such are the grumblings -- and occasional spurts of vitriol -- heard about town. But the Crepe Myrtle Trail has defenders too. A cluster of locals, inspired both by the success of similar efforts elsewhere and by the shameful expulsion of the public from almost the entire western shore of Mobile Bay and its tributaries, generated a preliminary study in 1996. Then the city council hired an engineering firm to look closer. About a hundred curious residents gathered last month at Government Plaza to hear the results and discuss them.

Most of the crowd was supportive -- with some misgivings. With the trail attract users scouting to jog off with my boombox and hubcaps? Will my yard become a pedestrian interstate? Will lighting on the pier illuminate my bedroom around the clock? Will any of this maim the value of our property? Will the costs siphon funds from more urgent needs in the city budget? Is it wise to draw the masses to the shore without cleaning up the water first?

But one man expressed the general mood by saying he and his family delighted in walking the waterfront, watching the port at work, spotting fish and birds, mingling with the crowd. Why, he wondered, must we travel to New Orleans or Baltimore to do this?

Yet the plan presented to these supporters that January evening would come nowhere close to matching the accommodations in those cities. It was a major retreat from the original 1996 concept, which pictured a ten-mile path beginning at the convention center on the river downtown; aiming southward beside the visually beguiling array of shipyards and docks; looping slightly westward along the shore toward the Coast Guard base, Brookley Field, and the University of South Alabama's waterside golf course; sneaking around the end of Brookley's runway; and stretching south on Bay Front Road to the city's McNally park, where the public pier would go.

Dotted along the way would be refreshment stands and other vendors, brief obstacle courses for fitness fanatics, benches, and a couple of small wharves for the fisherfolk routed by construction of the convention center from the source of supper. Near the Coast Guard base would be a shoreline amphitheater with a floating stage for concerts or other events (surely a more suitable site for Easter sunrise services than Battleship park). Crepe myrtle trees would flank the trail as it followed existing streets in some places and took to newly paved stretches about ten feet wide in other places.

The hired engineers junked most of this appealing vision befitting a city of Mobile's size and maritime history. Their plan offered at the meeting amputated the Crepe Myrtle Trail to just the pier at McNally park and a sliver path teetering northward a mile or two on the edge of narrow Bay Front Road, then back to the park along Dauphin Island Parkway, a.k.a. Speedway. (Be certain the city's liability insurance policy is paid up.)

They acknowledged this loop many miles from the city center wouldn't be convenient for anyone except residents in the rather sparsely settled vicinity of the park. As a remedy they suggested -- seriously, it seemed -- shuttle busses to get exercise enthusiasts to the trail from downtown. Completing the trail up to the convention center, as originally conceived, would have to wait until some dim (and improbable) later time.

Why? Money mostly, the engineers said. The pier, costing about $5 million, would devour most of the prospective budget because it has to be 1,500 feet long. Why? Because the bay is so shallow at the park that it must march out this far to reach water deep enough for swimming and fishing. Why not put the pier somewhere with deeper water closer to land? Because the city already owns the patch of shoreline at McNally park, and we weren't tasked with considering other sites. Are there any with deep water nearer the land? Yes apparently, off the university golf course at Brookley.

Then why not locate a much shorter pier there and deploy the millions saved to build the amphitheater and other amenities along a trail running from this pier to the convention center? Wouldn't that be ideal for folks in the densely populated residential and commercial zones along the route, plus conventioneers and other downtown visitors? Can't be done. The university, not the city, owns the golf course.

That shouldn't end the story. Does a university really need a golf course (especially one 12 miles from its main campus)? Or does it need a full sized one? Couldn't that public institution yield enough of this expanse to benefit the larger public? Sacrificing space for a pier and some parking would probably leave the school with many holes still to play. Try friendly persuasion. Offer to install a plaque: President Fred Whiddon Promenade. Or station his famous statue at the end of the pier holding aloft a Statue-of-Libertyesque navigational beacon. If such approaches fail, there are less friendly methods of persuasion.

Or perhaps another spot nearby has deep water just offshore. Find it! Acquire it! Summon the gumption to build the pier there and link it to downtown with a Crepe Myrtle Trail worthy of a mature and civil metropolis.

Along the way people will become reacquainted with the water, which has been walled off from most of us for so long. Then they will care about defending it against whoever would turn it into a sewer.

And they will remember they're the creature that stood up and walked on two feet. It's loco to think - as we declare by our daily driving habits -- that motion should be machine powered and air polluting. We've forgotten what muscle power can do. The trail would serve as a mass relearning lab.

Anyone still grousing about the cost of an attractive waterfront path should take note. Ponder the mounds of money saved in street and highway lanes never constructed when people realize they can walk or peddle themselves around and then demand that cities be designed to encourage this.

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