Residents disappointed with burial of Willowbranch Creek, flooding

Residents disappointed with burial of Willowbranch Creek, flooding
Joe Coleman and his son, Rex, who live near Willowbranch Park, enjoy a walk along a section of the canal that is not currently undergoing rehabilitation by the city.

To combat erosion and shore up existing bulkheads along Willowbranch Creek between St. Johns Avenue and Olga Place, the City of Jacksonville has embarked on a $831,115 canal restoration project, however, not all residents who live near the creek are pleased with the methods the city is using to maintain the small waterway and decrease the chance of future flooding.

Currently in Phase II of the project, that is estimated to be complete by fall 2020, according to a sign posted on the edge of Willowbranch Park, several residents who live in homes close to the creek expressed disappointment with the city’s decision to close the open channel in the section near Willow Branch Avenue and Olga Place by installing large cement piping underground. Meanwhile, others expressed dismay at the destruction park’s natural beauty in sections that have been bulldozed. And one homeowner living on Azalea Place blamed the project for flooding that threatened his home and caused damage to the property of two neighbors after a moderate summer rainstorm in June. 

“If a storm comes our way, I think we will be in trouble,” said William Hale, who lives in an Azalea Street home with his spouse, Joseph Caliandro. During a heavy sustained downpour June 7, the creek invaded his neighbors’ homes and lapped at the top of his front steps, he said. Not even during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma had his home, which was built in 1936, been so threatened. Creek water also rose swiftly again in mid-July, but halted as it reached his steps because it had stopped raining, he said. 

“Before we bought the house, we were concerned about the canal flooding, but people told us that even though the street floods during a hurricane it never comes up to the house,” he said. “It was scary. We were thinking, ‘how far is this going to come? Should we get out of the house?’” He continues to be concerned because construction work in the area between St. Johns Avenue and Riverside Avenue along Willow Branch Avenue appears to have been halted since the June 7 flood happened, he said.

Walls are crumbling along the creek in Willowbranch Park near Olga Place and Willow Branch Avenue.
Walls are crumbling along the creek in Willowbranch Park near Olga Place and Willow Branch Avenue.

Handling erosion

Most of the creek will remain an open channel, including the area near Azalea Place, according to city officials. Only in the segment between Olga Place and Sydney Street will the existing bulkhead be replaced with concrete piping due to severe erosion. At that location, only the west side of the canal had a concrete bulkhead. Subcontractors from Maer Construction LLC are installing a 470-foot segment of the channel with underground piping for “operational and hydraulic efficiency,” said Marjorie Dennis, a public communications officer for the city. “This segment of outfall ditch is curved, which increases erosion. Piping this segment will require less maintenance in the future and will decrease the chance of future flooding,” she said. 

In an email to District 14 Councilwoman Randle DeFoor, John Pappas, director of Public Works, said the piping will be limited to the smaller portion of the waterway upstream, where the creek makes a turn. “Within this area, the side banks of the outfall are challenged due to waterflow velocity that has caused erosion issues that are being corrected by placing pipe for stormwater conveyance,” he wrote. “The piping effort is limited to that area and results in a far more stable and maintainable system.”

The Jacksonville Department of Public Works is in charge of the project, and the design and construction is being managed by the department’s Engineering and Construction Management Division, which is being overseen by City Engineer Robin Smith.

“I am sadly disappointed in what is being done to ‘rehabilitate’ the canal,” said Geoffrey Davies, an Olga Place resident who lives near the canal. Davies said he was disappointed with the city’s lack of communication with nearby residents about the scope of the project prior to construction. “Initially, I was told by the crew working on the project that they were working to return the creek to a more natural status, removing the concrete bunker walls and widening the canal bed. A little over a week ago, plans seemed to change to install large concrete piping to line the existing bed and subsequently bury the creek,” he said in early July. After writing letters to DeFoor and Mayor Lenny Curry, he said he had heard back from DeFoor that the creek bed would not be buried.

Underground piping will bury the creek from Olga Place to Sydney Street
Underground piping will bury the creek from Olga Place to Sydney Street

“I’m not sure anything can be done at this point in time, but it’s sad and disappointing to decimate a formally beautiful creek bed that was home to wildlife and fauna. Owls and turtles used the creek and will be sorely missed,” Davies said, noting he has lived in his home 20 years. “I walk my dog multiple times a day. It was a like a park area, and this has disappeared. I feel like a parking lot was put in. There were palm trees lining the sides of the creek and flowering plants, azalea bushes. Everything was torn out in the last two months. It won’t be the same. Sometimes, I think I’m the cranky old man on the street, but I hate to see a natural environment get obliterated. It’s just very, very sad to me.”

Quinna Neumann, who has lived next door to the creek on Olga Place since 1983, said she received a flyer from the city with phone numbers to call if she had questions. “The city representative has been very helpful and super informative. Everyone I’ve talked to has been courteous, upfront, and very factual,” she said.

Creek erosion has always been a problem near her home, Neumann said, noting there was a huge wash out in the mid-1980s large enough to bury a full-size truck. Initially she was shocked when she discovered the creek was going to be buried, but she has since come to terms with the change and welcomes it. “I’ve been told they are going to grass it over,” she said. “At first, I was shocked when I found out the creek was going to be buried, but I’m excited they are finally renovating it. It will help with the mosquitoes and the kids. I’ve been here forever, and I’ve seen people down in that creek. Nobody should ever be in the creek. They have a sign posted about it in Willowbranch Park. The water has been tested and it’s not safe.”

Doug Rosen, an Olga Place resident who lives near the creek said he’d hoped the city would just replace the bulkhead walls and leave the creek open. It is his understanding that the city did not have enough land at that location to fix the erosion problem properly and decided to bury the creek instead. “We’ve always walked along the creek and enjoyed it,” he said, noting he has seen alligators in its waters during mating season. “The creek was degrading in quality. Sometimes it smells, and there is a lot of trash in it from the high school,” he said, adding that the creek runs under a parking lot across from Robert E. Lee High School. “We’re upset. We wanted a cleaned-up creek, but we were told this is the only solution. Oh well. Something had to be done.”

Rosen questioned the wisdom of grassing over the newly made pocket park, saying the city is reputed to only mow it twice a year and not provide irrigation. He suggested instead that it install a garden filled with native plants. “Will the city keep up its responsibility in taking care of what is left?” he asked, questioning whether the grass would be watered enough to hold. “I’d love to work with Randy DeFoor and make it into a public park with native plants. I think it’s possible to come up with a plan for it that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he said.

When asked, DeFoor said she was on board with the idea of making a pocket park with natural plants out of the area. 

Flooding concerns

Azalea Place was flooded during a moderate rainstorm June 7
Azalea Place was flooded during a moderate rainstorm June 7

DeFoor also said she is concerned about the flooding experienced by Hale and other Azalea Place residents. She is working with the city’s Stormwater Maintenance Division, which is part of the Public Works Department to develop and implement long-term solutions. She has also volunteered to be vice chair of the Infrastructure sub committee for City Council’s Special Committee on Resiliency, and recently took over as chairman of the entire Resiliency Committee. 

DeFoor said the reason Azalea Place residents experienced deeper flooding than normal on June 7 was “a result of intense rain that caused crane mats to dislodge from the creek bank and blocked/restricted flow in the creek. The contractor and our construction management team worked during the event to remove the restriction. Once removed, the flooding dropped,” she said in an email.

For residents who own homes damaged in the June 7 flood, DeFoor said the contractor’s insurance information has been provided to all affected property owners, and the city’s construction management team has been following up regularly with the property owners to ensure the insurance company is being responsive to any claims. “To our knowledge based on our outreach, the property owners that have contacted the insurance company to file a claim have received action from the insurance company,” she said.

The canal rehabilitation project includes installing a stabilized construction entrance, silt fences and synthetic swales, clearing and grubbing, and removing sediment from basins. 

In an email, Robin Smith, city engineer and chief of Engineering & Construction for Public Works, said the city is currently in Phase II of the project.  Phase II deals with construction of the piping near Olga Street.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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