By Jeremy Morrison
There are numerous words to describe the proposed plans to improve connectivity and waterfront access in downtown Pensacola. Creative. Cool. Ambitious. Smart. Progressive. Also, expensive. And maybe overwhelming.
Pensacola City Councilman P.C. Wu described the plan as “doable” and “transformative.” He compared SCAPE’s proposals to the development of Maritime Park, which he framed as a game-changer and key factor in the revitalization of downtown.
“This is a chance for us to have another transformative moment,” Wu said. “This is a chance for us to transform the city for a second time.”
For the past six months, New York City-based urban design firm SCAPE has worked to come up with a plan to create a more pedestrian-friendly downtown core—a space where walkers and cyclists feel as comfortable as vehicular drivers—as well as a landscape that allows for access to downtown’s most valuable asset, the waterfront of Pensacola Bay.
Over the past half year, SCAPE has worked with the local community, hosting a series of input sessions and presentations, to come up with its vision. The design team focused on the swath of Pensacola’s downtown that rests between the Pensacola Bay Bridge and Bruce Beach, just west of Maritime Park.
SCAPE recently unveiled its grand plan, inviting everyone into a beautiful, hip dreamscape and a future full of possibilities via lush theoretical architectural renderings. But dreams ain’t cheap. And while the design process was a gift to Pensacola—SCAPE was brought to town and its work funded by local developer and businessman Quint Studer—the follow-through will require significant buy-in and funding commitments from the city.
The plan proposed by the SCAPE team is anchored by two primary elements, referred to as ‘catalytic’ projects. The first such project—and likely the more immediately possible project—pertains to a quartet of streets in the downtown core.
Dubbed the Waterfront Hashtag project, this portion of the plan focuses on Main, Cedar, Palafox and Jefferson streets. Mapped out on the street grid, the streets make the shape of a hashtag.
The Hashtag project involves design elements such as road diets, bike lanes and crosswalks. It is designed to de-emphasize infrastructure for vehicular traffic while making the area more inviting to pedestrians.
The proposals slated for Main Street are fairly illustrative of the Hashtag project’s overall aim. Whereas Main Street now features wide 12-foot lanes and a dearth of opportunities for safely crossing the lanes of flowing traffic, SCAPE is suggesting that the lanes be slimmed to nine or 10 feet, that crosswalks be implemented, that the route include a bike lane and also a physical median dividing eastbound and westbound lanes.
One of the more dramatic elements involves transitioning a stretch of Cedar Street to accommodate a plaza-like environment. The streetscape would feature alternating bio-swales, or expanded curbs featuring vegetation, on either side of the road to slow vehicles down and would also allow for the street to be closed to cars altogether. This is a European concept, referred to as a woonerf street, meaning living street.
The Cedar Street proposal seems to embody the overall spirit of SCAPE’s objective—to create uninterrupted routes where pedestrians can navigate downtown. While the improvements proposed for Main, Palafox and Jefferson also incorporate elements that better the environment for pedestrians, the changes proposed for Cedar would offer perhaps the most pleasant traverse.
Let’s Build a Beach
SCAPE’s other catalytic project involves Bruce Beach and calls for developing the site into a welcoming waterfront space and community hub. Currently, Bruce Beach is effectively hidden, an urban gem lying a stone’s throw from Main Street.
“It’s an incredible space,” said Gena Wirth, design principal with SCAPE.
Wirth described Bruce Beach as “a little slice of nature” nestled within the urban core. She also noted how the site, at 11.5 acres, is relatively large. For a point of reference, she explained, the nearby Admiral Mason Park is only 7.5 acres, while Bryant Park in her native New York City is nine acres.
Plans for Bruce Beach include connecting the public waterfront with Main Street via a park-like atmosphere, featuring tiered terraces and an overlook bluff. Portions of the site will be left natural, while other areas will be developed to include elements like a splash pad, kayak storage facility and a 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot educational center that focuses on the area’s ecology, culture, history—such as the beach’s historical importance to the local African-American community—and ever-evolving relationship with the waterfront.
The Economics of a Dream
In tandem with SCAPE’s work, the impacts of the team’s proposed plan were fed through a calculator in an effort to figure out what the associated economic benefits might be. According to New York-based economist James Lima, the projects could have a considerable economic upside.
“The more I see of this plan, the more excited I get for Pensacola,” Lima said.
As for the proposal for Bruce Beach, the economist said, any park-related improvements should be viewed as promising. In general, public spaces that people want to hang out intend to drive surrounding real estate values upward.
“A park strategy is really a strategic part of a place’s economic strategy,” Lima said, ballparking valuation increases for properties within a couple of hundred feet of a public park at around 20 percent. “We think there’s a strong stimulative effect that will occur.”
Both projects—Bruce Beach and the Hashtag—are expected to be drivers of both new real estate development, as well as an increase in the value of existing properties downtown. Lima outlined the projections for each.
As an associated benefit of the Bruce Beach project, Lima projected that existing properties would see a combined $2.8 million increase in assessed value, and new properties would add another $6.6 million to that. That would mean a total property tax benefit to the city of about $1.7 million.
The Hashtag project, the economist said, would result in existing properties jumping $29.6 million in value, while new properties generated $27.9 million in value. That would mean $11.6 million for the city tax rolls.
“We think our numbers are extremely conservative,” Lima said.
Pretty pictures can go a long way. They can spark one’s imagination. They can excite a community.
But after all the pretty pictures have been taken off their easels and the SCAPE team has returned to New York City, the difficult conversations must begin, conversations about funding and about how far Pensacola can realistically expect to go towards realizing SCAPE’s dream vision.
And while it may be difficult to get a fair read on what such conversations might sound like with psyches still bathing in the afterglow of SCAPE’s proposals, members of the Pensacola City Council at least seem to be on board with the plan in concept.
“My gut reaction,” said Councilman Jared Moore, after digesting SCAPE’s proposal, “I want to be there. I want to walk those streets and pedal on those streets.”
Council President Andy Terhaar agreed—“It’s a great plan and something we’ve got to get to work on”—saying that portions of the Hashtag plan likely represented the low-hanging fruit, while the Bruce Beach proposal posed a more formidable financial hurdle.
As for funding? Terhaar said it’ll likely come down to community support.
“I think there’s going to have to be some outside money that’s going to have to have to come in,” Terhaar said. “Public or private, there could be a combination of both. I do think that the private sector knows that they benefit from this, so we’ll see.”