Urban planning firm DPZ is working to propose guidelines and development standards for Pensacola neighborhoods.
Over the last decade, Marina Khoury has visited Pensacola on multiple trips while on assignment with one of the world’s leading urban planning firms, DPZ Partners.
On each visit, she has witnessed Pensacola experience a rebirth of sorts — businesses and entrepreneurs moving to and establishing a presence downtown, century-old storefronts being restored, and locals and visitors alike filling the streets with activity.
“What makes Pensacola so beautiful and special is the wonderful urban, historic character here in your neighborhoods,” said Khoury on her most recent trip with her DPZ colleagues to the city.
For Khoury and her team, there’s just one problem: Pensacola lacks the necessary tools to retain that character.
Among those tools, according to Khoury, are realigning zoning to community goals, encouraging walkability through modern transportation planning, promoting the historic urban character through common sense design standards, and streamlining the approval process to create predictable development.
Khoury and several members of the DPZ team spent four days in Pensacola with the goal of igniting a conversation with Pensacolians on how they see the future of development in the city, specifically the city’s three Community Redevelopment Agency districts that surround downtown Pensacola.
“We were hired because the city has acknowledged that there is a problem in Pensacola,” Khoury said.
Last fall, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency approved spending $180,000 to hire DPZ to develop new guidelines and guide future development within the CRA’s three overlay districts that span the urban areas of the city. The firm’s hiring comes in the wake of their success in developing a master plan for Perdido Key, which was officially adopted by Escambia County in 2016.
Like their work in Perdido Key, the firm held several public input meetings and workshops with the public last week in the community. Among those in attendance during the multi-day process were residents and developers from neighborhoods such as Belmont-DeVilliers, the Tanyard, and the Eastside.
In their initial presentation on Tuesday, Khoury and her team produced a bulleted list of what they believe is holding the city’s development back. Among them were incompatible and antiquated zoning that leads to unpredictable development, rules that disincentivize mixed-use development, building height limits, unreasonable parking requirements, and ambiguous standards for special reviews districts such as the Architectural Review Board.
In Pensacola, according to DPZ planners, a lack of political will and citizen-led action has equated to a lack of change to meet modernized development standards that have been adopted in similar cities, such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Greenville, S.C.
To produce a host of recommendations uniquely tailored to Pensacola certainly presented a challenge for the team of urban planning experts.
“I think a lot was accomplished in a short period of time,” remarked Amir Fooladi, owner of Pensacola-based ParsCo Construction of the charrette process. “In addition to several public presentations, they had an open door policy to allow citizens and developers to sit one-on-one to voice our concerns and offer suggestions.”
DPZ planners made specific recommendations during their draft presentation presented Friday evening to the public: allowing more on-street parking in place of increased off-street parking requirements, moving garages and parking to the rear or side of homes, placing parking lots behind commercial buildings, placing limits on how much of a front yard can be paved with impervious driveways, encouraging more open and public green spaces within developments, and encouraging the development of a network of complete streets that promote greater pedestrian and bicycle access.
During the opening presentation by DPZ earlier in the week, Fooladi admitted that he initially had concerns over placing too many restrictions on developers.
“I think that during my discussions with DPZ, they made clear that the guidelines and standards they would put forward for adoption by the city would not be a hindrance to development,” Fooladi said. “Most everything I heard would not be a hinderance — they are putting forward common-sense proposals.”
Fooladi is currently leading the redevelopment of the former Blount school property on Gregory and D streets and expects to build 30 two-story homes priced under $200,000. Fooladi believes that most developers, above all else, are seeking consistency in the development process.
“Under our current land-use standards and zoning, we can’t maximize the highest and best use for development in our neighborhoods,” Fooladi said. “We need consistency. It’s about creating a predictable outcome for future development that results in good development and pleasing aesthetics.”
John Ellis, owner of Voyage Real Estate, echoed similar concerns.
“This [charrette] process was the culmination of what many folks in the community have been asking for for years,” said Ellis, who has partnered with Fooladi on the Blount school redevelopment. “It’s going to create a more clearly defined process for those building and developing, and result in more predictable outcomes for the rest of the community. Change is never easy, but this will simplify our current development process, and improve Pensacola’s quality of life.”
For developers and realtors like Fooladi and Ellis, the recommendations being drafted by DPZ should be welcome news, according to Khoury.
“For the communities across the country that have worked to create such guidelines and reforms that we’re trying to create for Pensacola, there’s been a tremendous success rate,” said Khoury. “What we’re asking is do you want to preserve your character? If so, then here’s how you do it. It’s not rocket science and it can and should be a win-win for everybody.”
Not all developers have been open to the community input process, however. In an email last week, Pensacola developer and attorney Charles Liberis described city employees and others working on the guidelines as “Nazis,” comparing city staff and citizens to a fascist regime that was responsible for murdering millions of people.
Liberis is no stranger to controversy. The Pensacola attorney has been active in several large development projects dating back to the 1970s. Most recently in 2016, Liberis sued the city to demolish the century-old John Sunday House, an African-American landmark in the Tanyard neighborhood. At the time, Liberis told the city he would build 27 townhome-style residences on the 1.5-acre parcel but he later flipped the property to Mobile, Ala.-based developer Dean Parker who promised to develop another townhouse project. The property remains undeveloped.
Liberis also encouraged other developers to attend the community charrettes to speak out against the process. However, Liberis did not attend any of the sessions, nor did he respond to multiple requests for comment.
Outside Liberis’ comments, DPZ and city officials said they have not experienced much pushback against the charrette process, which is not always the case when they propose such reforms in other cities and towns.
For more than three decades, DPZ has worked with hundreds of cities and municipalities across the United States and dozens of countries to encourage forms of “new urbanism,” a term which they coined in the 1980s with the development of the town of Seaside in Walton County. At the time, Seaside was the first new traditionally planned town built in the United States in 50 years.
“Doing nothing or not adopting these regulations means the status quo continues,” said Khoury. “Ultimately, the city council and mayor need to have the political will to see this process through or you’ll see more of the inappropriate development that is going on.”
That inappropriate development, said Khoury, is degrading the character that makes Pensacola a place where people want to live.
“You need local champions, you need city council to understand it and sell it to the community, and you need the developer buy-in,” said Khoury. “There’s no reason this can’t be an incredible success story. What we’re recommending is not dramatic, it’s not new — its been proven to be successful over and over again. You just have to do it.”
Khoury and her DPZ team will return to Pensacola on March 19 to meet with the CRA, Planning Board, and City Council to review the draft overlays and recommendations, followed by further public input hearings and eventual adoption of the final overlays by the City Council this summer.
You can learn more about the CRA overlay project here.