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Hurricane-prone city wants to build up its waterfront

A waterfront plan that will have an effect on the look and accessibility of the Biloxi shoreline is on Tuesday’s agenda for a city council vote.

The plan has its merits — a 25-foot setback for all commercial development on the waterfront to allow public sidewalks and boardwalks, and architectural guidelines that “encourage” developers to build with the look of Old Biloxi.

But it also raises questions that haven’t been addressed:

▪ Is it an idealized version of Old Biloxi the city wants to re-create, when historic photos show the old canneries weren’t what many people consider attractive?

▪ Who decides if development is “Old Biloxi” enough to suit the city, and what happens if a developer prefers a different look?

▪ And is it realistic to encourage a proliferation of piers and docks all along the beach, given Biloxi’s storm threat and the potential damage these docks could cause to nearby structures?

Looking back or moving forward

Much of the proposed ordinance is based on the 1985 Biloxi Waterfront Plan of then-Mayor Gerald Blessey.

A lot has changed since then — most notably the addition of eight casinos on the waterfront, and the realities of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that require buildings to be elevated and insured at a high cost. The new regulations have pushed the cost of restrooms and a bait shop on the water to more than $1 million.

Blessey, who earlier this year resigned as the city attorney and now serves as special counsel for Biloxi, wrote the 2016 version with Biloxi architect Walter “Buzzy” Bolton, and Blessey’s wife and paralegal, Paige Gutierrez.

Had his plan not been rescinded after he left office, Blessey said, the casinos would have been built with a setback to allow continuous public access to the water.

Without an ordinance to regulate what can and cannot be done on the waterfront, Bolton said, developers can block access and build without architectural guidelines.

Central to the 1985 plan was Point Cadet, where the marina survived Katrina’s storm surge with major damage, but most everything else was destroyed. Blessey envisioned a marina ship hotel, a festival marketplace complex with specialty shops and restaurants, a waterpark complex, open markets, a historic-ship museum, an arboretum, a botanical garden and research facilities. All this was to be built in the area now occupied by Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi, Margaritaville Resort Biloxi and what is empty land north of U.S. 90 since Katrina.

“The Point Cadet concept fosters a climate in which retail, fishery, travel, educational and marine-related businesses can prosper by their association with the educational, cultural and recreational interests of the public sector,” the plan said.

Piers galore

“Authentic, iconic Biloxi,” is what Blessey and Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said they hope to recapture with the latest waterfront plan. It calls for sidewalk cafés, floating docks on the waterfront, a floating bandstand or a permanent pier and a restaurant out over the water — attractions popular in waterfront cities across the country.

“The goal is to have that waterfront experience,” Gilich said, and allow residents and visitors to “touch the water if they can.” The city has miles of sand beaches and several fishing piers, boat ramps and marinas, but Gilich wants more.

He asked for $14.4 million in Tidelands money, mostly for projects to improve public access at Point Cadet. Instead, the city and county together were awarded about $1 million to start building a boardwalk near Restaurant Row in West Biloxi.

To re-create the look of Old Biloxi, the waterfront plan encourages piers and docks be built from the Gulfport line all the way to Point Cadet and around Back Bay to Interstate 110.

“Boardwalks don’t have to be elevated,” Blessey said, and can be built with stronger materials so they won’t break apart in hurricanes.

But when Hurricane Matthew swept up the East Coast this year, the storm proved to be tougher than the bridges and piers designed and built to withstand hurricanes. The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, reported a third of the Jacksonville Beach Pier came apart, despite being built stronger after Hurricane Floyd destroyed the previous one in 1999.

Remnants of piers still exist along in Biloxi now, 11 years after Katrina, and residents still come to the Planning Commission to oppose any project they think might send lumber and concrete into their homes during a storm.

Old vs. new

“We’ve got to move forward,” Councilman Felix Gines said. He considers the waterfront plan pro-business, but realistically doesn’t think developers will want to invest in restaurants over the water. Instead, he hopes what comes out of the plan are “cafés where you can sit on the balcony and look out over the water.”

Gines added, “We’ve got to stop shooting from the hip” and create the same requirements for all businesses.

The most ambiguous part of the waterfront plan is the architectural guidelines Blessey said are “encouraged” but not required. Ninety percent of the ordinance is guidelines rather than requirements, he said.

Though these guidelines are not yet approved, the expectations already have meant a two-year approval process for the La Quinta Hotel, which went through several redesigns until the city was happy with the look. The Blind Tiger restaurant, now under construction on the beach, also changed considerably from its original designs.

Community Development Director Jerry Creel told the council he’s spoken to the developers of the proposed Foxwoods Resort Casino at Biloxi Pointe, who said they would go along the new design standards. As long as the city lets developers know what the rules are prior to their design, Creel said, they usually are pretty agreeable.

Councilman Robert Deming said he is concerned with the language of the ordinance for the design guidelines. “I would contend that’s not encouraging, it’s restricting,” he said.

With this ordinance, the mayor said, “I think this is an opportunity to define our expectations.”

If you go

What: City Council vote on waterfront plan

When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Biloxi City Hall, Lameuse Street

Biloxi Waterfront Plan

Requires: A 25-foot setback to allow public access to the water; underground utilities; no laser lights.

Encourages: Piers all along the Biloxi waterfront; architectural guidelines that re-create the look of Old Biloxi.