Hope Floats: The redevelopment of the West Palm Beach, Florida, waterfront includes a floating dock thatís also a water-filtration device.
In late February West Palm Beach, Florida, celebrated its new waterfront comprising 12.5 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway. The $30 million project, which includes Commons Park, water gardens, two boat piers, and walkways, was overseen by artist and lead designer Michael Singer, with landscape architects Carolyn Pendleton Parker at Sanchez & Maddux and Connie Roy-Fisher, architect of record Steve Boruff Architects, and HLB Lighting.
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The multifaceted project turns back the clock on West Palm Beach. Until Flagler Drive was expanded to accommodate growing car traffic in the 1960s, local residents could easily access the Intracoastal along a shady waterfront lined with boat docks. Yet the undertaking also looks to the future. For example, the Commons includes the Lake Pavilion, a community building with a 17-kilowatt photovoltaic roof array that is also the first LEED Certified municipal building in West Palm Beach.
One of the waterfront redevelopment’s most intriguing features melds past and present—namely the historic ecology of the Florida shoreline and a contemporary view to sustainability. In addition to two boat piers, Singer’s team designed a “living dock” in which native mangroves, spartina grass, and oysters thrive. Measuring approximately three times wider than a normal dock, the living dock is made of concrete over a foam core and its public surface is clad in sustainably harvested Ipe planks, like its two new neighbors. As well, it includes tie-ups for boats and water taxis.
A series of indentations of varying sizes runs down the center of the 400-foot-long living dock; each is surrounded by an aluminum safety railing as well as seating for visitors. Underneath the water you would see “aluminum boxes with holes drilled in a pattern,” says Jason Bregman, the project manager and environmental designer for Michael Singer Studio. For the floating mangroves and spartina, a special soil mix is sandwiched between layers of geotextiles. The volume containing the oysters is more perforated to boost water flow. Oyster shells discarded from restaurants fill the bottom, since, Bregman explains, those shells are ideal for prompting subsequent oyster colonization.
Bregman recognizes that West Palm Beach’s living dock has its limitations. Because the geotextiles cradling the spartina and mangroves are almost impermeable (and these root balls are becoming more sealed as barnacles accrete to their planting substrates), they aren’t necessarily controlling erosion as they would in a natural setting. And the mangroves will be pruned, preventing them from becoming a bird habitat.
On the other hand, an oyster can filter 40 gallons of water each day. “We’re a little oyster incubator,” Bregman says. Moreover, all three docks are angled slightly in order to align with the layout of the annual West Palm Beach Boat Show: Although show organizers still need to drive a few temporary pilings for participants, the synchronization between permanent and event uses greatly reduces the pounding and other environmental impacts of the boat show.
The redevelopment of the West Palm Beach waterfront is not done yet. So far $2 million has been raised to regenerate the southern portion of the city’s stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway. When completed, this undertaking will feature entire oyster reefs and, one-upping even the innovative living dock, it will include stepped tidal gardens whose mangroves and spartina will filter stormwater, build underwater habitat, and provide safe haven for birds.
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