Like it or not, Girard Place — the controversial upscale townhome development slated for the downtown Pensacola site formerly occupied by the historic John Sunday House — is coming.
The 23-unit project was approved by city council members earlier this month after its developer, Mobile-based Segen Ventures, asked the council to overrule the city’s Architectural Review Board, which sought changes intended to make the project more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
More residential capacity is good news — and it’s great to see out-of-town developers investing in Pensacola — but it’s hard to imagine that Girard Place won’t stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a suburban, car-centric design in a downtown that’s increasingly urban and pedestrian-friendly. Unlike just about every other upcoming downtown residential development, Girard Place will feature street-facing driveways and garages instead of parking that’s located under or behind buildings.
There’s a reason street-facing driveways are increasingly uncommon in urban areas. If residents and visitors park additional vehicles in the driveway, there’s a risk of sidewalks being blocked by cars, forcing pedestrians into the street. So much of a risk, in fact, that one of the developer’s own renderings of the project shows a parked car blocking a sidewalk.
But instead of building relationships with the community and working with the ARB to improve the project, Segen refused to compromise, insulted the neighborhood as “blighted,” and lawyered up.
For the neighborhood, this is nothing new. The Girard Place project will be built at the edge of The Tanyard, a neighborhood that has been decimated by decades of unchecked redevelopment and “urban renewal” projects. Hundreds of houses were demolished to make way for a sewage plant in the 1930s and for new government buildings in the 1970s and 80s. The loss of architectural character and the impact to the neighborhood fabric have been profound.
The John Sunday House — built in 1901 by one of the most prominent African-American figures in Pensacola’s history — was just the most recent in a long line of casualties.
But the biggest missed opportunity of all is Segen’s decision to name the development not for Sunday, but for Stephen Girard, a historical figure from Philadelphia, where Segen principals Dean Parker and Rebecca Garcia grew up. A banker and philanthropist, Girard had no connection to Pensacola, but what’s more troubling is his racist legacy.
The wealthiest man in America upon his death in 1831, Girard left much of his fortune to establish schools, hospitals, and other institutions in Philadelphia and New Orleans. But his will contained caveats that many of those institutions be white-only, and so they were for more than 100 years, until courts threw out the racial restrictions in 1968 after a lengthy court battle.
Naming the development after Sunday would have been the perfect way to bridge the past and future and honor the legacy of the man whose house stood on the site for 115 years. It would have been a great gesture of healing to a neighborhood and a community still reeling from last year’s unsuccessful fight to preserve the historic home. Instead, Segen chose to name the development’s small community building for Sunday, while naming the development itself after a Philadelphian with white supremacist views and no ties to Pensacola.
The Girard Place project is Segen’s first foray into development, and it’s yet to be seen if the company is planning other projects in Pensacola. One thing, though, is certain: the young company could have earned itself a lot of goodwill for the future if it had handled this first one a little differently. It’s not just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do. Studies have repeatedly shown that respecting historic architecture and engaging community stakeholders pays real economic dividends.
In the future, we’d urge developers to work with our historic neighborhoods and residents, rather than against them; to embrace and respect Pensacola’s incredible history and cultural diversity, rather than reject it.