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Major makeover in the works for Key West’s iconic sunset spot. There’s one reason why

Rendering of Mallory Square showing a walkway and trees
A proposed makeover of Mallory Square would brings trees, shade structures and a water play area to Key West’s famed sunset-viewing spot. The plan, which still needs city approval, is designed to protect the city’s sunset celebration performances.

“Outside of an hour and a half before sunset, nobody wants to sit there for more than five or 10 minutes even though we have this invaluable view of the ocean.”

Mallory Square, the most famous sunset viewing spot in Key West and all of the Florida Keys, is in line for a major makeover.

The reason: The empty concrete expanse is just too damn hot for much of the day, a problem that climate change is only going to make worse. In fact, the only time visitors turn out in numbers at the waterfront site is at sunset — for the postcard views and an equally colorful collection of performers that typically include jugglers twirling fire, acrobats walking tightropes and cats jumping through hoops.

“Mallory Square is an iconic destination and on the top of almost every visitor’s to-do list,” said Katie Halloran, Key West’s planning director. “But outside of an hour and a half before sunset, nobody wants to sit there for more than five or 10 minutes even though we have this invaluable view of the ocean.”

The city has drawn up plans to add trees and structures designed to bring shade, lower temperatures and make the square more of a daylong draw — while also not spoiling the panoramic view or disrupting the city’s quirky signature sunset celebrations.

Arched brick wall at Mallory Square
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
At hot times of the day, Mallory Square gets few visitors. These roosters wandered unbothered in December 2021.

Key West has hired the Boston-headquartered design firm, Sasaki, to revamp the pavilion. If approved by board and agency reviews and the city council, the hope is that Mallory Square could become a spot where visitors, and even locals, could get lunch from a vendor or attend a morning yoga class. “Locals don’t go much, maybe if they have a visitor in town,” Halloran said. “We are trying to bring back for people who are just on their break from their job a block away to allow a shady place to eat.”

Right now, more than half the 4.4-acre site is covered in unshaded pavement. The new master plan looks to change that by adding a 7,000-square-foot shade structure, canopy trees and planting beds, a 7,500-square-foot shaded deck and a water play area.

The survey says: Hot

Before drawing up a renovation blueprint, the planning team talked to performers, vendors and local businesses and also conducted an online survey of more than 2000 visitors and residents. When asked to describe the square in one word, “hot” was a top choice.

“What we heard clearly is the site is just too hot,” said Zachary Chrisco, a principal civil engineer at Sasaki.

Map shows thermal comfort level conditions at Mallory Square
Thermal comfort level conditions at Mallory Square based on the current design in an average week created by Sasaki design firm.

The design firm worked with Yi Luo, an assistant professor in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Florida, to test the comfort levels of people at the square.

Luo visited Mallory Square in July with a portable weather station and took measurements like humidity, air pressure, direct sunlight and precipitation in different spots to measure the “microclimates” on the square. Microclimates are small areas that can be just a few feet apart from each other but may be warmer or colder, drier or wetter than the rest of the pavilion.

“We want to do research that can help inform design so that the design is evidence based,” Luo said. “Humidity close to the water is always high, so what architects can do mostly is block the sun.”

The hottest surface temperature she measured was on pavement by the water, which clocked in at blistering 128.5 degrees. In the shade, it was 30 degrees cooler under planting beds and 14 degrees cooler in areas under the trees, where some sun still passed through. Previously Luo worked with the planning team at St. Petersburg Pier after a renovation. At Mallory Square, she now has a baseline to measure how much of a difference a makeover actually makes.

The hardest part of her study, getting public views, was actually telling.

“Many people said ‘it’s too hot’ and didn’t want to stop five minutes to do the survey under the sun,” Luo said. “It was proof that during the summer shade structures are necessary for people.” Sasaki also used an in-house tool to map comfort levels and shade and sun exposure times during average Key West temperatures. The mapping of the new design still shows red areas along the waterfront that get the most heat and sun.

“The edge still remains red which is intentional because we want to keep those views and everything on the waterside open for the sunset experience,” Chrisco said.

Map shows the thermal comfort level of Mallory Square after adding trees, shade structures and a water play feature
Thermal comfort level of the square after adding trees, shade structures and a water play feature in an average week calculated using heat index and shadows created by the design firm Sasaki.

Planning for the future

It’s not only the heat that is a concern in Key West. They city is on the front lines of increasing climate hazards, particularly from rising sea levels and hurricane storm surge. Even rain can flood some historic structures, Halloran said. The Mallory Square master plan also includes sea walls and steps that increase protection from tidal flooding.

“Mallory Square hasn’t gone through a change with holistic community preference,” Halloran said. “We didn’t really want to do a piecemeal project.”

Rendering of Mallory Square with an overhead canopy
Canopies inspired by Key West’s coral stone will offer shade by day and light by night at Mallory Square in Key West. The shade structures will be one of the first features to roll out in the master plan to mitigate heat on the square.

A top priority expressed in surveys was preserving the performance art that gives the city’s daily sunset celebration a unique character and also makes it a major tourist draw. Under the plan, performances would be organized into corridors framed by seating and planting to keep the space usable for vendors, and arts and crafts stands.

One striking proposed addition would be a central shade feature that also would provide light by nightfall.

The design of the shade is inspired by Key West’s limestone geology, a white rock often swirled with fossilized brain and fan corals and pocked large and small holes. that will generate changing shade patterns as the sun sets. The material of the shade will likely be metal but Chrisco said they will need to consider options that can withstand salty air.

“The idea was to bring an artistic shade to the waterfront,” Chrisco said.

The planning department also wants trees that offer swaths of shade but can be pruned. Once planted, the trees will take years to mature to full size.

“Some of the microclimates we’re talking about might be five to ten years down the road before they’re fully developed,” Chrisco said.

To lure families, the plan includes a 450-square-foot water splash station with nozzles of water for kids to run around in to cool off and a shaded area for parents to sit to the plan.

Key West has a $175,000 grant available from the Tourist Development Council that would cover the shade feature and restroom renovations. Before the city launches into grant writing to fund the rest of the master plan, Halloran said the proposal needs review by the Historic Architecture Review Commission, the parks and recreation department and also approval by the city council.

While there isn’t an exact time table for the project to reach construction, the planning department hopes it could happen in the next few years.

“It’s dear to many hearts and such an iconic space people don’t want to lose the Key West-ness,” Halloran said. “We very carefully have to make it more accommodating but not lose that thread to the past. But we can all agree on one thing, it’s just too hot and sunny during the day to want to visit for very long.”

Crowd watches a sunset at Mallory Square
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
A crowd watches the sunset from Mallory Square in Key West.

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.