Few people think of art when they think of the ubiquitous water and sewer tanks that are dotted throughout their communities. For one historic Pensacola neighborhood however, that could soon be just what people think.
Pensacola’s Long Hollow neighborhood sits in a narrow valley between North Hill and the old East Hill neighborhoods. Its name is derived from the old city maps of Pensacola, which described the low-lying strip between the hills as “the Long Hollow.”
In the early 1900s, Long Hollow was home to the city stables and utility buildings. Today, it’s going through a sort of revitalization thanks, in part, to the growth of downtown. In recent years, the neighborhood has become the unofficial art hub of Pensacola with the establishment of First City Art Center, a community park featuring public art pieces and sculptures, along with local artists relocating to Long Hollow.
Long Hollow is made up of nearly 30 city blocks between Palafox and Tarragona streets, bordering the railroad that was first laid down in the 19th century. Dotted throughout the diverse neighborhood are historic churches, dozens of small businesses, and a large cluster of industrial facilities. It’s a common sight to see historic shotgun cottages bordering churches and offices and Victorian mansions neighboring repurposed warehouses.
But one neighbor that often goes unnoticed is the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. ECUA owns more than two city blocks in the northern part of the neighborhood and has operated a regional lift station on the site since 2010, pumping millions of gallons of sewage daily from downtown Pensacola more than 14 miles north to ECUA’s $300 million Central Wastewater Reclamation Facility near Cantonment.
“In case of emergency”
Recently, ECUA announced a multi-million dollar plan to expand its presence in Long Hollow with the acquisition of an abandoned medical facility adjacent to the Moreno Street Regional Lift Station at the intersection of Guillemard and Mallory streets. The utilities authority plans to build two five million gallon capacity tanks at the property.
ECUA says the tanks will provide a much-needed emergency backup in case the connection to the Central Wastewater Reclamation Facility is blocked or broken, preventing possible overflow or leaks of raw sewage.
“The Moreno Street Lift Station is unique because of its large regional operation and high flows,” said Bill Johnson, ECUA’s Director of Engineering. “The lift station is one of three regional lift stations that were built as part of replacing the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant in downtown Pensacola.”
“Collection of sewage from a large area of Pensacola is flowed into this station for pumping to the treatment plant in Cantonment,” Johnson added. “The flows never stop regardless of weather. If the large transmission main is interrupted for any reason, the lift station will overflow and sewage will flow downhill on the ground and in surrounding stormwater systems and water bodies to Pensacola until repairs are completed.”
ECUA says no such breach has occurred at the lift station, but if one were to occur, presently any overflow or leak would spill onto the streets in Long Hollow, possibly flooding homes and businesses with raw sewage.
With the construction of the emergency storage tanks, ECUA says any such incident would be averted.
Petition claims tanks will “impact quality of life.”
Despite ECUA’s assurances, there has been some opposition to their plans. An online petition that is being circulated from the North Hill Preservation Association calls for residents to demand ECUA to “re-evaluate the selection” of the site where the tanks are proposed to be built.
While the ECUA property in Long Hollow falls outside the North Hill historic district, some residents fear that the proposed tanks will negatively impact their quality of life and property values.
The petition states, “We, the undersigned, call on ECUA to re-evaluate the selection of this site for their proposed project and encourage them to locate untreated, raw sewage storage facilities on property in the Industrial Zoning District where it will not negatively impact the quality of life, and property values of our City’s many residential districts.”
Some Long Hollow residents, who asked not to be named, admitted they felt pressured into signing the petition circulated by North Hill residents. Additionally, ECUA officials have said most of the concerns addressed in the position are the result of unjustified rumors and aren’t based on data or facts.
“These tanks will only ever be used for emergency storage and will be empty 99.99 percent of the time,” said ECUA spokesman Jim Roberts. “Our hope is that these tanks would always be empty. We have never had a breach at the Moreno lift station and these tanks are being built to protect the Long Hollow neighborhood in case a breach does ever occur.”
Roberts says that the empty tanks will never produce any sort of odor, just as the neighboring lift station doesn’t emit an odor.
Pensacola city councilman Brian Spencer, whose district includes the ECUA property, says he has concerns over the proposed use of the property.
“The prevailing reaction from the potentially affected neighborhoods was nearly unanimous opposition,” Spencer said. “ECUA has not presented an alternative site for the project. What I want to do is push for exploring alternative locations.”
Spencer admits he’s had little discussion with ECUA about the proposed tanks and isn’t sure if the proposed project would be illegal under current zoning laws.
“There is an attorney looking into the legality of the use of the property,” Spencer said.
The property is zoned C-3, which allows for “wholesale and light industry” that permits uses such as body shops, lumber yards, and manufacturing facilities, along with public utility buildings and structures. ECUA officials say their existing lift station in Long Hollow conforms to the zoning laws and that their proposed tanks would comply with any zoning laws in the neighborhood.
Similarly, ECUA says two 5-million gallon tanks are currently under construction at their Warrington facilities near a residential neighborhood and Bayou Chico to serve similar purposes. While that property is also zoned commercially, ECUA hasn’t faced any such backlash.
A blight in Long Hollow
Today, the Long Hollow property is home to an abandoned former medical center building. Since being damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the structure has sat vacant and become infested with black mold and fallen into disrepair.
For more than a decade, the structure has become a blight in the neighborhood, posing a health and safety risk to nearby businesses and residents. Officials said the facility has routinely been broken into, utilized for illegal drug trafficking and been used as a makeshift shelter for transients.
Over the past decade, several interested buyers have expressed interest in the property but no sales ever materialized.
After searching extensively for a site to construct emergency storage tanks for the Moreno Street Lift Station, ECUA purchased the property and building in December 2015 for $637,500. The purchase of the property and the project were discussed in public meetings and were approved by the ECUA Board in November 2015.
Johnson says this type of project wouldn’t be a first.
“The use of temporary storage facilities is a very common practice in the utility industry,” said Johnson. “The position of the tanks next to the Moreno Street Lift Station (actually on Guillemard) will minimize the cost, but more importantly, will be the most advantageous location because of engineering and hydraulic concerns.”
Johnson says the project is currently under design and ECUA expect the tanks will be complete in about a year at a cost of up to $3 million.
Opportunity for public art
Some residents see the proposed ECUA project as an opportunity for a massive public art piece.
Rachael Pongetti, the face behind the Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project, says she thinks any opportunity to transform the proposed tanks into a public art piece would be tremendous for the neighborhood.
“I think it would be great,” says Pongetti, who also represents the newly-formed public art organization Art Beyond Walls under the First City Art Center in Long Hollow. “We’d love to get support for the labor for such a project. That would be awesome.”
Art Beyond Walls emerged out of Pongetti’s Pensacola Graffiti Bridge Project that focuses on public art education, murals and installations. Most recently, the group created a public art mural called the “Gonzalez St. Project” in Long Hollow at the First City Art Center.
ECUA officials have met with Mayor Ashton Hayward and city staff to request assistance in leading a public campaign to seek citizen input on what kind of public artwork or designs would be placed on the tanks.
“We are open to any suggestions and plan to communicate further with the City of Pensacola staff regarding the final design features,” said ECUA’s Johnson. “We want to be a good community partner. Local artists working with the city staff are certainly a welcome component.”
City spokesman Vernon Stewart says the city is looking forward to working with ECUA and the community on moving forward in collaborating on the project.
“We met with ECUA last week to discuss options regarding the project,” said Stewart. “We may look at putting a call out on social media and in the community…to ask for suggestions on what they’d like to see [on the tanks].”
Stewart says such a collaboration with ECUA would be unique locally but that it wouldn’t be hard to find examples of such projects. One such public art project is in Davis, Calif., where local officials held a competition to award a $75,000 grant for local artists to design and paint a mural on the city’s new water tanks.
“This would be a first of its kind project for both the city and ECUA,” said Stewart. “We’re certainly open to all suggestions from the public.”
ECUA says there are many possible architectural treatments that could be used for the tanks . Officials have stated the tanks are expected to be up to 40 feet in height, but have made assurances that only about 20 feet would be visible from Palafox Street.
“We are very flexible and have communicated with the City of Pensacola staff about their recommendations the same as we did when we replaced Ol’ Stinky,” said Johnson, referring to the former Main Street ECUA facility. “The planting of trees, a wall, a City park, rehabilitation of the old medical building, architectural features on the tanks and various painting schemes have been suggested.”
ECUA added they want to treat this opportunity to create a beautiful community icon in Long Hollow.
“The ECUA has always been a good community partner and will continue to be,” Johnson said.