What Do the Experts Say?

We asked four thought-leaders and business-developers in the Downtown area about the greatest challenges they feel the area faces, and possible solutions for those problems.

ALAN GRAY, A NATIONALLY CERTIFIED CITY PLANNER, HAS WORKED IN PENSACOLA FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS AS A REGIONAL AND CITY PLANNER FOR BOTH THE WEST FLORIDA REGIONAL PLANNING COUNCIL AND THE CITY OF PENSACOLA. HE IS CURRENTLY THE PRESIDENT OF FIRST CITY DEVELOPMENT, A DEVELOPMENT SERVICES AND CONSULTING COMPANY HE FOUNDED IN EARLY 2015, AND IS THE DIRECTOR OF SALES AND ADVANCEMENT FOR PELICAN DRONES.

THE ISSUES

One of the challenges downtown Pensacola needs to address is the lack of residential density in the urban core of our town.  Solving this does not mean constructing a skyline of towering edifices, but rather moderate sized buildings to establish an aesthetically appealing urban streetscape.  By completing three to five projects annually, the housing deficit of 1,800-2,000 residential units would be eliminated over the next ten years.  Further, establishing street edges with three to five stories buildings within the core of the city will improve the overall attractiveness and quality of downtown living for residents and visitors alike.

SOME SOLUTIONS

By developing underutilized lots from “on the market” open spaces to “sold above asking price” properties, local property values would likely increase in the downtown and extending areas of Pensacola, which benefits those in the community.  Over time, we will begin to see a downtown area filled with medium to high-density residential developments, or even mixed use buildings.

Envision walkable sidewalks with trees along streets to provide shade from Florida sun and protection for pedestrians from moving vehicles. This will benefit local residents, visitors, pedestrians, and bicyclists equally.  With an increase in retail, service sector, and residential building and investments, additional parking will become essential.  We propose structured parking lots hidden among the new construction in courtyard parking lots or centralized parking structures.  Urban core areas tend to have parking infrastructure deficiencies, so we will seek innovative solutions to consider underutilized spaces and alternatives to street parking, which is limited.  We can also look at ways to use technology to determine where parking is needed and most utilized.

With an increase in construction over the next few years, we hope to fill existing commercial space, bring in more retail tenants, and increase the number of full-time residents to the downtown and neighboring areas.  As the skyline fills with more rooftops, the pulse of downtown will become more vital 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We anticipate more activity, entertainment, and true downtown living.  In the last several years, we have experienced more interest in the restaurants and bars along Palafox Street during the evenings, which we hope to build upon with as development continues.

One example of this transformation of commercial space downtown into living, playing, and working space is being built by Quint and Rishy Studer.  This multi-million dollar project converts an office building into 240 residential units, as well as retail space.  While this project begins to address the need for housing in the downtown area, much more residential development will be needed. It is important to look to every opportunity out there to fill this need of living square footage.  Another opportunity for development is the Hawkshaw Property nestled between Gulf Power and Aragon.

While much of the development proposed will not necessarily occur on South Palafox Street, it is likely to fill in the urban core and meet the edges of the downtown and along the waterfront. Over these coming years it will become very important for this community to have access to the waterfront. A waterfront linear park connecting the Pensacola Bay Bridge to the west edge of the downtown will be a welcome amenity to enhance the quality of life in downtown.

What needs to also be assessed, at this future point in our history, is the existence of the Port of Pensacola in its current location and form. Could the 50 acres be subdivided into a continuation of the downtown, much like what was done at Maritime Park, or should a portion or majority of that land continue on as a port facility. While that is being decided by our city’s future leaders it is likely that the western edge of the downtown will remain largely single family residential. Even so, we should expect some degree of density to extend that direction in the next twenty years, sooner if things really start to blossom in what land remains undeveloped in the urban core.

The University of West Florida has an opportunity to further utilize the classrooms and buildings in the Historic Pensacola Village.  Establishing a greater presence in the downtown and historic areas would benefit students, locals, businesses, and residents alike.  Many urban areas have university facilities, and even extension campuses, that enhance the partnerships between faculty, students, and the community.

BARRIERS TO CHANGE

We have a few barriers to this described future but they can all be managed over time with the commitment of present resources and energy.  The most importance issues to face will include stormwater management, parking, walkability, and enhanced streetscaping. Once people start living in downtown they will begin to demand enhancements like improved walkability, more street trees, calmed streets with decorative lighting, and increased frequency of police patrols. These elements will build up with the increased number of residents and will the costs offset with the increased taxes associated with the higher density development so these really don’t need to be addressed in a purposeful manner.

Dependable data service need to be established well above the current level. That means the availability of dependable data service for both residents, and businesses. Many will remember the outage of service experienced on September 21-22nd.  This type of unreliability is unacceptable for a company looking to locate their headquarters in our community.  These companies must be tethered to their employees and customers electronically and an outage like that could have tremendous impact on their success.

ELIMINATING THE BARRIERS

What does need attention are stormwater management, public and private parking, and dependable data and information infrastructure.  Stormwater management is the kind of challenge we will have to address in the same way one managed a daunting task; one manageable bit at a time. This will likely require massive infrastructural changes as well as slight incremental modification to the existing system. One breakthrough project could be the daylighting of Washerwoman’s Creek. This project would restore a lost stream system through the western portion of the downtown. It was important because it allowed water running down from areas to our north to make their way to the bay unimpeded. Today this rainfall situates itself on our streets and storefronts until the inadequate diameter pipes below ground can funnel it to the bay.

What has been described here is just a first glance description of the future of Pensacola. There is so much more involved in making Pensacola a premier place in the panhandle of Florida and along the Gulf Coast. It will be very interesting to hear this conversation continuing in future installments of the annual Business Climate edition. World renowned architect and urban planner Leon Krier once said “A city is not an accident but the result of coherent visons and aims.” What are our visions and aims?


JOE ABSTON IS ARGUABLY ONE THE PREMIER FORCES BEHIND THE DOWNTOWN RENAISSANCE. HE FIRST OPENED HOPJACKS NEARLY A DECADE AGO, AND SINCE THEN, THE AREA HAS GROWN AROUND IT, ORBITING PALAFOX AND GARDEN AS THE GENESIS OF THIS REVOLUTION. HE HAS SINCE OPENED THE TIN COW, POT ROAST & PINOT, AND VARIOUS OTHER RESTAURANTS. HE IS ACTIVE IN GALLERY NIGHT AND OTHER DOWNTOWN HAPPENINGS. LOOK AROUND AT ALL THE LITTLE DETAILS THAT MAKE DOWNTOWN GREAT, AND CHANCES ARE ABSTON HAD SOME HAND IN THEM.

When I opened Hopjacks in 2008, downtown Pensacola was a very different place. Before Hopjacks, there were four restaurants and one bar on South Palafox between Garden Street and Main Street: Jackson’s, Global Grill, Dog House Deli, New York Nick’s and Intermissions. Only one of which was open on a Sunday or Monday evening (way to go Nick Zangari). Later in 2012 when I opened The Tin Cow, change was certainly afoot but nothing like it is today. It was possible to see people walking on Palafox after dark on a Friday or Saturday but not more than a handful.  The food options on Sundays and Mondays were still incredibly limited. The entertainment choices were but a handful of places.  The foot traffic on a random Wednesday night after 6 p.m. was nearly non-existent. When you look at the pedestrian traffic today on weekdays, there is always someone on South Palafox before 1 am. On the weekend there are a hundred people on the sidewalk at any given time of the evening. My how times have changed.

The downtown Pensacola of the past and present both have its challenges. In 2008, it was also very difficult to get good workers to choose to come to downtown Pensacola and invest their time for a population and clientele that was not really here yet.  Fast forward nine years to 2016 and we have some of the same challenges with the additions of some new ones.  We’re in a constant state of which one comes first: the chicken or the egg. On one hand, we have grown the dining, entertainment and nightlife to a staggering number of venues however we have not kept up with the number of downtown Pensacola residences. Although it is encouraging to see the Studer’s $52 million downtown apartment building project at 101 E. Romana St. moving forward, Jim Reeves’ possible acquisition of the Escambia County School District’s former headquarters at 213 W. Garden St. doing a similar mixed-use development consisting of residential, commercial and recreational space and others in the works in regards to downtown Pensacola housing, there is another piece of the puzzle that we need to focus on, at least in the hospitality industry.

Supporting our local Culinary and Hospitality Management department at Pensacola State College and the Global Hospitality and Tourism department at the University of West Florida is essential. The food service industry is one of the fastest growing economic sectors.  Since 2006, the industry in the United States has grown by more than 2 million employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. We need to convey to these students that they have opportunities in the Pensacola area before they leave and take their talents elsewhere. Downtown Pensacola is an up and coming culinary destination. To make it a place that draws culinary tourists, we need a unique representation of food and beverage, something that is different than what a visitor can get in their hometown, and a reputation, overall, for good food. New businesses opening should diversify downtown neighborhood’s offerings and provide a fuller experience to residents, workers and visitors. We need to come together as a hospitality industry and focus more on producing more events in the downtown area that showcase the culinary prowess and diversity of our city.

One of the ways that this could be accomplished is downtown events that focus on friendly competition, fundraisers and collaborated marketing efforts. We are in the beginning stages of possibly culinary tourism and it would be a great opportunity for Visit Pensacola to showcase the enormous amount of culinary diversity with a culinary marketing campaign. Downtown Pensacola can soon be compared to Charleston South Carolina where the hospitality industry is fed by a well-funded and well-established culinary school, a focus on increasing the downtown urban population and the local government touting its culinary tourism with regional advertisement. A thriving downtown hospitality and entertainment industry will help to bring young professionals to Pensacola. Because if Millennials are drawn to such great companies as IHMC, Studer Group, Baptist Healthcare, Gulf Power or one of the numerous influential law firms and other great employers, they are looking for a life beyond their career.  Hospitality and entertainment is part of that equation.

So to reiterate, the three things I feel we need as an industry, more downtown living spaces, a well-supported hospitality and culinary training programs and collaboration between culinary venues with support from local government and groups such as Visit Pensacola for regional marketing of our great culinary industry.


JUSTIN BECK HEADS UP THE MOST DYNAMIC COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE BROKERAGE FIRM ON THE GULF COAST. JUSTIN IS A CCIM DESIGNEE, AND IS A LICENSED REAL ESTATE BROKER IN FLORIDA AND ALABAMA. BEFORE BECOMING PRESIDENT OF THE COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE DIVISION OF BECK PARTNERS, JUSTIN SERVED AS PRESIDENT FOR BECK PROPERTY COMPANY, THE PREDECESSOR OF BECK PARTNERS. HE HAS COMPLETED OVER 400 TRANSACTIONS IN THE EIGHT YEARS HE HAS BEEN WITH THE COMPANY, AND IS CONSISTENTLY RANKED AS THE TOP COMMERCIAL PRODUCER IN THE AREA.

Demand for office, retail and residential spaces in downtown Pensacola continues to exceed supply, even with new projects coming out of the ground. I speak with people every day that are interested in opening a business, moving downtown, or looking for a job because of what’s happening downtown. All of this makes Pensacola an exciting place to be, and one might think we’ve arrived. If you travel to other communities however, you are struck by how much more we can achieve, and how much work we have to do in order to fulfill the promise of a world class live, work and play downtown.

There are many common themes I hear when discussing challenges with clients, both developers and occupiers alike. They include construction cost, parking, affordability, availability, and government regulation. Ultimately, I believe all of these issues are effects that can attributed to two overarching challenges. The first, is a huge need for further infrastructure investment in our downtown. The second, is clearer governmental processes related to development. We must answer these challenges in order to prepare our community for the city we are becoming.

When examining the need for improved infrastructure, the two major needs that will prohibit or limit the type of development we want to see in our community are; parking and storm water management. An intelligent and comprehensive parking plan and storm water management plan can ensure we see the type of dense, walkable development we all want and enjoy downtown. Without these however, we run the risk of creating suburban style development that are the antithesis of the urban environment we all enjoy.  We all know that these projects are costly, however, a smarter more cost effective idea might be to develop a plan that incentivizes the development community to improve the infrastructure and work in partnership with local government to create the infrastructure needed.

The most significant challenge to any business is uncertainty. Entrepreneurs and business owners are great problem solvers, but they need to know the rules before they can solve the problem, and unfortunately, downtown Pensacola is replete with uncertainty in its governmental process. Top among the list of uncertainty is how surplus property is disposed, and preservation of historic structures.  The process of development and the process to acquire city owned properties continues to ebb and flow with public opinion and politics while parcels continue to sit vacant. Leadership should do the hard work of creating concise processes that take politics out of play and clears a path towards smart growth.

If business and community leaders can do these things then I believe the positive trajectory of our downtown has only begun.


BRIAN SPENCER WAS ELECTED TO REPRESENT DISTRICT 6 IN NOVEMBER 2010 AND WAS RECENTLY ELECTED VICE PRESIDENT OF THE CITY COUNCIL.  HE REPRESENTS THE CITY COUNCIL ON THE DOWNTOWN IMPROVEMENT BOARD AND KEEP PENSACOLA BEAUTIFUL, INC. BRIAN IS A FOUNDING PRINCIPAL OF SMP ARCHITECTURE WHICH HE BEGAN IN 1989.  HE HAS EARNED A LOCAL REPUTATION FOR HIS PASSION IN REVITALIZING OLDER BUILDINGS AND NEIGHBORHOODS. HE CAN ALWAYS BEEN SEEN AT DOWNTOWN EVENTS, CHATTING WITH AREA MERCHANTS, AND KEEPING HIS PULSE ON ALL THINGS PENSACOLA.

I recently participated in an economic and planning workshop, Connecting Nature and Commerce, where I heard a nationally respected urban planning expert share statistics associated with the increasing population of downtown residents nationwide.  The trend of suburbanization that began in the 1950’s has reversed, and the data associated with the shift is compelling and undeniable.  For decades, municipalities relied on economic models that assumed the abandonment of urban living in exchange for the less densely populated suburban “brand new” developments would be the permanent land planning model.  Municipal budgets were formulated with larger allocations of funding needed to support the expansion of  transportation and utilities services.  With a city’s progress being measured and defined as expansion of footprint (in square miles), many local government budgets were contributing to an exodus from previously built and existing infrastructure.  Fortunately, the fiscal reality of supporting suburbanization began to exert pressure on policy makers and elected representatives, and the unchallenged public funding for sprawl has decreased.  One of the most compelling reasons for public sector (i.e. government) to increase the 24/7 population of urban centers is because of the economic efficiency that is associated with higher density neighborhoods and districts.  As a provider of services, the City of Pensacola can provide the same level of services at a lower cost per citizen in an urban area than for the citizen that resides within a lower density neighborhood.   The service provider, the City of Pensacola, is therefore rewarded with the economic efficiency of a high density district AND the increase of a 24/7 population.

In addition to the funding constraints associated with supporting rural and suburban sprawl, there are numerous demographic and sociological factors contributing to the current resurgence of downtowns.  These include the increasing percentage of aging baby boomers and a growing sector of young adults that are less attracted to the uniformity, predictability, and sprawling characteristic of acres and acres of stand alone housing and single story, strip shopping centers.  Suburbia, once the poster child for America’s prosperity, is experiencing a popularity setback, thus the stage is set for local governments to recognize and embrace the population shift to metropolitan areas as a significant economic opportunity.

With increased support from the City of Pensacola, our downtown is poised to capitalize on a growing number of individuals that favor a downtown’s walkable, mixed-use environment.  There are limited financial and support packages that the City can presently offer, and the adoption of additional incentives to induce private sector investment within our central core should be a top priority.  Our City Hall shelves bear the weight of multiple years of commissioned master plans in the form of booklets with enticing graphics and narratives describing idyllic streetscapes, lush landscaping, and recreational trails.  These master plans showcase a vibrant downtown footprint with boundaries far to the west, east, and north of our current core.  More importantly, the graphics depict a taller downtown Pensacola … one that recognizes the value of higher density compactness.  The present, one-story streetscape of East Garden Street is inconsistent with a downtown that has experienced redevelopment.  The remaining undeveloped parcels of the Community Maritime Park, the undeveloped Hawkshaw parcel, the unrealized infill opportunities in downtown neighborhoods, and the underutilized acreage on the Port of Pensacola are all indicators that the city government has not enhanced its current portfolio of redevelopment incentives.  Despite the noteworthy renaissance of downtown to date, our redevelopment potential is far from being fully realized.  Yes, the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption (EDATE) incentive is a significant tool that can be incorporated with City Council’s approval, however, it is not enough to reduce the high risk of high quality redevelopment in our city core.  In order for downtown Pensacola to literally grow UP, the individuals that were elected to be stewards of Pensacola’s financial status and protectors of the community’s environment must formulate additional inducement packages.  I am prepared to launch some new incentives, and I hope my colleagues will support the effort to grow Pensacola.

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