Willowbranch Canal Rehabilitation

willowbranch park

Council Member Randy DeFoor brought together representatives from three of RAP’s volunteer committees (Transportation & Infrastructure, Parks and Zoning), the St. Johns Riverkeepers, and the City's Public Works and Parks departments to discuss the status and plans for the Willow Branch Creek project.

Currently, work is proceeding on either end of the creek at St. Johns Avenue and at Olga Place. Work on the Creek in-between these two locations, including along Willowbranch Park, has not started and is not scheduled. During the meeting, COJ staff indicated a willingness to work with the community to revise plans where they can to address community concerns.

RAP sent a letter of concern to CM DeFoor about the project in late July after receiving project plans from the City. In the letter, concerns were raised, including:

  • The plan to remove 75 trees along the creek.
  • Removing the three bridges that span the creek and then putting them back in place.
  • Water quality concerns during construction that continue to degrade the Yacht Basin.
  • The lack of using proven resiliency methods instead of just putting concrete walls along the basin.

The meeting started with a review of the project’s highlights by John Pappas, P.E, COJ Public Works Director. Robin Smith, P.E., COJ Chief of Engineering & Construction, then began answering each of the questions and concerns from RAP’s email.

The following is a synopsis of the question and response:

  • Approximately 75 trees will be removed.  The mix of trees is inconsistent with growing our tree canopy and the plan to contribute $36,000 to the tree mitigation fund instead of planting trees is a concern. RAP also asked that the City’s Parks department be involved in planning for the Willow Branch Park section of the project.
    • The COJ staff will review all the the trees that are proposed to be removed with the focus on keeping as many trees as possible that are not in the way of construction. Keeping hardwood trees is a priority. Staff will also review the plans for tree mitigation funds. Daryl Joseph, Director, and Jill Enz, Natural and Marine Resources Division Chief of the Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, attended the meeting at the invitation of CM DeFoor.
  • Three bridges spanning Willow Branch Creek are scheduled to be removed, set aside during the project, and then put back in place. Are they up to code? Is the Oak Street bridge scheduled to be replaced for a future bike boulevard?
    • The decision to remove the bridges during construction and put them back after construction is completed is a cost-saving decision. COJ staff will research plans and timetable for the bike boulevard project. Future status of the bridges will be subject to further community discussion.
  • RAP is very concerned about the continued health of the Yacht Basin overall. We are worried that the construction activities will only worsen the high amount of sediment already in the basin and the Creek. We would ask for more than just basic erosion controls in the area.
    • Any observation of sediment from construction entering the Yacht Basin should be immediately reported to COJ.
  • In the long term, RAP is requesting COJ develop a plan to restore the historic nature of the Yacht Basin to its useable form. The basin has not been dredged since the first project to restore the creek, and is not useable as originally envisioned.
    • CM DeFoor asked John Pappas to review steps that would be required to rehabilitate the Yacht Basin. Mr. Pappas indicated that he would contact the oversight agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers that normally would be involved in such a process.
  • When planning for this project began several years ago, resiliency and maintaining the natural look and vegetation did not seem to be a focus of the plan. Where possible, we would request resiliency measures and less reliance on concrete walls be added to this project.
    • Currently, construction on areas other than those already in progress are not scheduled. CM DeFoor will continue meetings with the community to provide input into how the current plans can be modified to incorporate changes that will enhance resiliency and maintain the natural environment where possible.

Mr. Smith indicated that work to plant trees and sod will focus for the next few weeks in the Olga Place neighborhood. Workers will then return to the St. Johns neighborhood to finalize work in that area.

UPDATED: August 28, 2020

In July, Riverside Avondale Preservation became aware of a project involving Willow Branch Creek near the intersection of Olga Place and Willow Branch Ave. We requested a copy of the Willow Branch Canal Rehabilitation project plans, which were secured though the efforts of Council Member Randy DeFoor.

The multi-phase project covers a much larger area and is more involved than we initially understood. It stretches from Olga Place to the Yacht Basin. Developed several years ago, it involves significant tree removal and tree replacement as well as new walls installed along the creek.

The plans were reviewed by volunteers in three of our RAP committees: Zoning, Transportation & Infrastructure and Parks.

On July 29th RAP transmitted a list of concerns, comments and questions to CM DeFoor. With the assistance of CM DeFoor, we hope to schedule a meeting for next week.  We are pleased that St. Johns Riverkeeper has asked to join the meeting.

Although the work is underway, RAP still hopes to influence the project. Based on our review, we believe that some of the most obvious aspects of the plan that will be experienced by our residents can still be improved. We look forward to bringing those concerns and questions to the COJ staff and engineers.

Tree Removal and Replacement

  • We estimate that approximately 75 trees will be removed as part of the project. We understand the COJ Parks Department has not been involved in the selection of trees for replacement in Willowbranch Park.
  • According to the plans, many of the replacement trees will be cabbage palms, which do not contribute to the shade canopy of the historic district and are not the type of tree, like the live oak, that will make a contribution to our tree canopy.
  • We recommend deleting the cabbage palms from the project and instead focusing on other trees, like live oaks which are recommended by COJ’s urban foresters as part of the RAP ReLeaf program.
  • We noted that the plan calls for contributing $36,000 to the tree mitigation fund instead of planting trees. If the reason for this contribution to the mitigation fund is because there is not enough space to plant more trees along Willow Branch Creek, then, RAP recommends planting trees in Willowbranch Park instead of paying into the mitigation fund. We also recommend that the Parks Department be involved in tree selection and placement.

Bridge Removal

  • As we understand the plans, three bridges spanning Willow Branch Creek are scheduled to be removed, set aside during the project, and then put back in place. Two are short bridges in Willowbranch Park. The third is a longer bridge at the end of Oak Street. Do the bridges meet current safety standards? If not, should these bridges be removed and replaced instead of preserving them? If replaced, all three bridges should look the same for consistency purposes and have a design that maintains the historic significance of the neighborhood.

Adverse impact on the Yacht Basin and water quality concerns during construction

  • RAP is very concerned about the continued health of the Yacht Basin overall. We are worried that the construction activities will only worsen the high amount of sediment already in the basin and the Creek. We would ask for more than just basic erosion controls in the area. Of immediate concern is the possible visit of a tropical storm or hurricane. We ask that Public Works ensure that the contractor’s plan to stop erosion is adequate and in place.
  • In the long term we are asking the COJ to develop a plan to restore the historic nature of the Yacht Basin to its useable form. The basin has not been dredged since the first project to restore the creek, and is not useable as originally envisioned.

Rechannelization

  • The new walls being installed in the Creek are taller and look less natural. Many cities are taking out concrete along urban creeks, sloping the banks and planting the banks with more natural vegetation. Was this option considered?

Resiliency 

  • When planning for this project began several years ago resiliency does not seem to be a  focus of the plan. We believe future plans for creeks should have resiliency as a main focus of planning and where possible resiliency measures be added to this project.

We are looking forward to our discussion with the professionals involved in this project. As an advocate of the Riverside Avondale neighborhood, our goal is to arrive at solutions that will maintain the historical significance of the area, improve our tree canopy, add resiliency infrastructure, and reduce harm to our Yacht Basin.

UPDATED: August 19, 2020

For a look at the drainage and erosion control plan, click here.

To view a copy of the full rehabilitation plan, click here. (You will need to disable pop-ups for this link to work.)