Pensacola Embraces Masterplan
By Jeremy Morrison
Awaiting his plane out of Pensacola, urban planner Jeff Speck considered for a moment the impact his newly drawn up masterplan for the western swath of downtown might have on the city.
“The hearts of our cities—the most particularly walkable parts of our city—can only truly begin to thrive when they have people around the clock,” he said, stressing the importance of increasing downtown’s stock of residential and accompanying retail.
The previous evening, Speck had presented an ambitious vision for the remaining properties in Maritime Park, as well as the 19-acre former wastewater treatment facility property located across Main Street. If the vision is ever conjured into reality, it stands to alter the downtown landscape dramatically.
Currently, this area to the west of the downtown core remains relatively sleepy. Heading away from Palafox, the energy begins to fade at Maritime Park, where several empty parcels remain clustered near the baseball stadium. From there, government buildings and the expanse of that empty 19-acres fronting Main Street spills into neighborhoods, like Sanders Beach, the Tanyards and Belmont-DeVilliers.
Speck notes how the action at Maritime has already served to draw downtown’s energy westward. The plan he’s just handed off to the city, he says, will provide the necessary roadmap to take that next step and develop the infrastructure such energy requires to grow.
“It’s a soul in search of a body, right?” Speck said.
Retail Residential Tent Revival
If you were paying attention in the spring, when Speck and his team came to town for a week of public input and collaboration sessions, then you’re already familiar with the plan that’s been mapped out for the western area of downtown. It’s pretty much the same one he presented as a rough sketch at the end of that week in April.
“I’m now going to show you much prettier pictures of basically the same plan,” Speck joked before diving into his final presentation of the West Main Master Plan Oct. 21 inside the lobby of the Studer Community Institute.
Speck was invited to town by local developer Quint Studer, who paid $270,000 for the masterplan of the area. Studer owns the minor league Blue Wahoos, which play baseball at Maritime Park, and also the 19-acre former Emerald Coast Utilities Authority property across Main Street. He secured an 18-month lease option in 2018 from the city of Pensacola, along with the go-ahead to the masterplan the area.
In addition to Speck, considered a new urbanism guru, Marina Khoury of the Miami-based DPZ firm also worked on this masterplan. Together they sketched out a vision that includes adding nearly 1,300 apartments, more than 500 condos and about 200,000 square feet of retail over the next 15 years.
As part of this masterplan process, a market study revealed an exceptionally low 1.4% vacancy rate in the downtown housing market. During his final presentation, Speck offered a vivid illustration of this, pointing to how quickly units at Southtowne, a downtown residential-retail project recently developed by Studer, got rented when they become available.
“It’s typically rented out within 24 minutes,” Speck said. “That’s the demand.”
To fulfill this need for retail and residential, the West Main Master Plan calls for mixed-use developments on both the 19-acre parcel and the land surrounding Maritime Park. On the 19 acres, the pedestrian-centric developments resemble row houses, with parking located beneath multi-level residential units. Near Maritime, it’s more akin to the ironwork gabled streets of New Orleans.
Waiting for his plane the morning after his presentation, Speck pointed to the city’s intentions to develop nearby Bruce Beach into a public park and mused at how that might evolve the cityscape and also up the desirability of properties outlined in the masterplan.
“The beautification of Bruce Beach essentially turns Main Street into waterfront property,” he said.
In the Zone
When assessing an area’s potential, Speck said he doesn’t consider the existing landscape as it pertains to code.
“We don’t let ourselves feel constrained by the zoning at all,” he said.
Once a vision is realized, the planner then assesses what changes might need to be discussed with the municipality’s planning department for a plan “to take its absolutely best shape.”
In the case of the West Main plan, Speck said, not too many changes were necessary. In his presentation to city officials, the planner explained to accommodate the plan fully, the city would need to create a subzone of sorts, a zone within the Waterfront Redevelopment District.
This new zoning designation of WRD-1 allows for a couple of key changes from the larger zone. Maximum building height goes from 60 feet to six stories, and buildings would be able to take up 95% of a parcel, up from 75%.
Pensacola City Council unanimously approved the new zoning for the masterplan area, despite some objections about the move amounting to spot-zoning and preferential treatment for a particular property owner and developer. President Andy Terhaar said the action was in the public interest and was necessary to attract developers to the available properties, thus strengthening the tax base and allowing the city to better pay off bonds associated with Maritime Park.
“That’s the whole point of these parcels, to get them developed and get improvements on there,” Terhaar said. “The more improvements we can get on there, the more taxes we collect, and we can pay off those bonds faster.”
The ‘Great Conundrum’
If the West Main Master Plan, or even elements of it, is taken up by individual developers, it will certainly change the area that falls within the plan, as well as the nearby neighborhoods.
In addition to creating more residential units, the new development will inevitably lead to the surrounding areas increasing in popularity, and with that a rise in property values. Speck explained how realizing improvements to an area is ultimately a double-edged sword, describing the duality as “the great conundrum of being a planner” and his “personal responsibility” to address.
“There’s gentrification. Or, more to the point, there’s displacement,” Speck said. “Gentrification is a vague concept, displacement is a very real concept. People lose their homes because they can no longer afford to live in their homes.”
As the West Main plan unfolds, neighborhoods like the Tanyards will certainly be impacted. Some current residents may find themselves priced out.
To combat gentrification, or displacement, Speck outlined steps local governments can take. In addition to creating a community land trust, helping renters become homeowners and supporting the production of more affordable housing, the measures include placing a freeze on property tax increases.
Speck also noted that some of the residential units outlined in the masterplan would be attainable, on the low end, by someone making $42,000 a year.
“This won’t just be luxury housing,” he said. “This will be a broad range of different types of units for different types of people.”