Pensacola’s Downtown $18 Million Extravaganza
Pensacola has $18 million to spend in the downtown core. A suite of four potential projects primarily focused on walkability and connectivity are on the table.
“I think this is great, man,” said Pensacola City Council Vice President Jared Moore as he looked over architectural renderings of the projects along with members of the public during a presentation earlier this month.
Not everyone, however, is on board with the proposed projects. Members of the public and council members have raised concerns about the appropriateness of the projects or the need to spend the money elsewhere.
“I didn’t vote to borrow this money, and I’m not going to vote to spend it because of what it’s going to be spent on,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said in last Monday’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) meeting.
Eating the Elephant
Last summer, city council members decided to refinance bonds associated with the Community Maritime Park to get $17.8 million, now $18 million with interest, to use for improvements within the downtown CRA. The council made this decision after hearing a pitch for two projects from New York City-based landscape architectural firm SCAPE, an effort funded by Quint Studer.
The SCAPE projects involve improvement of Bruce Beach, as well as walkability and connectivity improvements along the waterfront and within a cluster of downtown streets dubbed the “Hashtag.” The remaining two projects under consideration include the construction of a municipal marina at Community Maritime Park and a reimagining of an area off of East Garden Street, as well as a road diet along Jefferson Street.
The four projects together total north of $21.6 million. The Hashtag Waterfront Connector project is the most expensive at more than $10 million, though it’s split into phases. The Bruce Beach project will run an estimated $8.6 million. The CMP marina is expected to cost nearly $1.6 million, while the East Garden District/Jefferson St. Road Diet project, which involves a public-private partnership with a developer, costs about $1.3 million.
“I believe these are all transformative and catalytic projects,” CRA Executive Director Helen Gibson told the city council, sitting as the CRA, as she presented the projects.
Gibson connected all four potential projects—including the two pitched from SCAPE last year—to the 2010 Urban Core Plan.
“We have been taking bites of this elephant to consume it one bite at a time,” Gibson said and acknowledged the projects might require working in phases. “We can’t eat the whole elephant at one time. What kind of bites can we take out of it?”
Mayor Grover Robinson told city council members that he thought the city could likely secure grants to help complete the projects. He said at a CRA workshop early February, “I wouldn’t worry about everything to the penny.”
‘Transformative and Catalytic’
This collection of projects would create a more walkable downtown and better public amenities, while also featuring a public-private partnership toward which critics have cast a sharp eye.
Here’s a quick rundown:
The Hashtag project concentrates on better connecting downtown Pensacola to its waterfront and also improving the walkability of the city’s urban landscape. The project has been divided into three phases.
Phase one of the Hashtag project includes a Complete Streets revitalization of Main Street between Alcaniz and Baylen streets, as well as traffic calming components, bike lanes, bioretention features and urban landscaping.
The second and third phases of the Hashtag project involve Complete Streets-related improvements along Cedar Street, between Bartram Park and Spring Street. This portion would also create better pedestrian connectivity between Baylen and Port Royal Way, as well as near the Port of Pensacola. Also, a “woonerf,” or shared street concept, would be employed along a stretch of Cedar.
The Bruce Beach project aims to tie Bruce Beach, to the north of CMP, into the rest of downtown and also capitalize on the beach’s presently underutilized urban waterfront. Like the Hashtag project, the Bruce Beach work is a phased effort.
Phase one of the Bruce Beach project includes the construction of terraces and a pedestrian bridge, as well as a kayak launch–estimated cost $1.99 million.
The second phase involves the addition of sitting walls, an overlook area, exercise equipment, as well as parking and a marsh trail–cost $1.96 million.
At $1.94 million, phase three would include an entry plaza, a learning garden and water feature, as well as shade structures and cultural exhibits. And finally, phase four would have more cultural and educational exhibits and other site amenities and run $1.98 million.
The CMP marina at the CMP would have 49 slips. The facility would not feature electricity or running water. Some of the work needed ahead of the actual marina has already been completed. The dredging was done in 2010, at a cost of $600,000, and the breakwater was constructed in 2015 for more than $1.8 million. The marina itself is expected to cost about a million and a half.
East Garden District/Jefferson Street Road Diet would be a public-private partnership with local developer Chad Henderson, founder and CEO of Catalyst HRE. The project entails overhauling the area of downtown near the intersection of Garden and Jefferson, adding retail, residential, a restaurant, hotel and parking garage.
While the city expects to put in a bit more than a million dollars, there will be an estimated $40 million of private investment in the project. The city projects the project will add $247,000 to the property rolls and generate $2.2 million in sales tax and $368,000 in bed tax.
Puzzle Pieces, or Choking on the Elephant
Initial reaction to these four potential projects was positive.
“I’m excited. I wish that we had the money to do it all,” said Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn. “Every project is something that’s needed. Every project is something that’s going to improve our city.”
But some council members later expressed some reservations about committing so much money to plans that were admittedly “very much first brush conceptual.”
Myers contended that the city was focusing too much in the downtown area, and Councilwoman Ann Hill voiced specific concerns about the Garden Street public-private partnership. Gibson informed her it had been proposed by the developer but also connected to the 2010 plan—“It’s not a project out of thin air.”
“I feel like the elephant is being shoved down my throat,” Hill said.
Members of the public, too, expressed reservations about spending the $18 million on these projects as opposed to improving the city’s flooding issues in the CRA area or focusing the funds elsewhere. And they questioned whether the SCAPE projects were true to the firm’s vision.
“They had fought the city on this,” said Drew Buchanan, who oversaw walkability issues on the mayor’s transition team, referring to the absence of dedicated bike lanes in the city’s proposed plans for Main Street.
Ultimately, though, five of the seven city council members—sitting as the CRA—were on board with the four proposed projects and voted Feb. 10 to give city staff the go-ahead to pursue them while allowing the plans could evolve after further consideration or public input.
Nodding toward Pensacola’s downtown revitalization puzzle coming together over recent years, Councilman Moore said he thought these projects fit nicely—“These catalytic projects seem like big pieces.”