Just like any building that has stood for generations, Pensacola’s development rules may be due for some refurbishment.
And the city is poised to do just that, as the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency signed off Monday evening on extensive revisions to rules that govern the design of new buildings within the city’s CRA districts surrounding downtown Pensacola that aren’t already subject to review by the city’s more stringent Architectural Review Board.
The CRA — whose members also sit on the City Council — voted 5-2 to adopt the standards after more than a year of extensive public input sessions, charrettes, and hearings.
The standards are what urban planning experts describe as a common-sense approach for new development, while also preserving the historic character and neighborhood scale of the districts.
The plan calls for specific standards that city staff say will strengthen connectivity and quality of development in neighborhoods: 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, 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.
The changes are part of a larger rethinking of the city’s development rules, with an intention to protect the city’s historic character and charm.
That rethinking began as early as the late 1990s, when neighborhood residents around the city’s older urban core neighborhoods were struggling to attract new residents and investment. For years, plans emerged and dissolved, leading to frustrations by many residents.
Jeannie Rhoden, who has served on the Eastside Neighborhood Improvement Association for more than a decade, voiced her support for the standards during Monday’s meeting.
“I have a love for my community, for the people, and I love Pensacola,” Rhoden said. “This has been a long time coming and I almost gave up hope.”
Fast forward to the fall of 2017, when the CRA approved spending $180,000 to hire DPZ Partners, an internationally known urban design firm, to develop new design standards and guide future development within the CRA’s three overlay districts. The three districts surround the urban core of downtown Pensacola — the Eastside, Westside Garden District, and Urban Core redevelopment districts. The firm’s hiring came in the wake of their success in developing a master plan for Perdido Key, which was officially adopted by Escambia County in 2016.
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 DPZ’s Marina Khoury in 2018, referring to the sporadic and largely unplanned new developments occurring throughout the city’s historic neighborhoods. “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.”
In Pensacola, according to DPZ planners, a lack of political will and citizen-led action has led 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.
“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. “Our goal has always been to preserve that.”
Leading up to the vote, Councilwoman Ann Hill, who represents Belmont-DeVilliers, the Eastside, Long Hollow, and much of downtown Pensacola, voiced her appreciation of the work done by city staff and the consultants.
“I think this has been thoroughly vetted,” stated Hill “I’m very proud of what our staff has done.”
Monday’s CRA approval comes after the same body denied the proposed changes in October 2018 after controversy surrounding the adoption of the standards in neighborhoods within and surrounding East Hill.
Since then, CRA staff took action to exclude the area east of 9th Avenue and south of Cervantes Street from the overlay district boundaries. In addition, the final plan limits the overlay district’s applicability to new construction and demolition/rebuilds only, rather than to minor renovations and repairs.
Leading up to Monday’s meeting, both the Westside Garden District CRA and Eastside CRA submitted letters of support from their neighborhoods, “strongly supporting” the adoption of the standards. It seems, for now, those efforts have paid off.
In February, the City Council — made up of the same members as the CRA — will take the first vote of two hearings on the plan, which could be adopted as soon as this spring.
Several citizens spoke on the issue Monday — all supportive of the proposal’s passage. Mike Kilmer, President of the Historic Brownsville Community, spoke passionately with his young daughter Rinah by his side.
“I want everyone to smile,” Kilmer said to the council. “Because this proposal supports mixed-use neighborhoods and allows our children to grow up in safe neighborhoods. It will protect our neighborhoods from developers whose interests are not aligned with our neighborhoods.”
“This action sends a message that we are a cohesive community, where running, walking, and bicycling are supported. I want you to support this because I’m tired of these meetings,” Kilmer joked.
Rand Hicks, president of the newly-formed Council of Neighborhood Presidents, echoed the statements of support.
“This is going to help establish and not abolish sensible construction,” Hicks said. “It will allow us to establish a context for living history — that we don’t have to lose our historicity. It’s a symbol that we can be united, preserve our heritage, and still be progressive and it creates harmony.”
You can learn more about the CRA overlay project here.