Making History

How historic preservation and designation is handled on the local and state level, plus a look at the benefits of historic preservation on our economy


Pensacola has more than 400 years of history. Even before we unearthed that Pensacola is the earliest multi-year European settlement in the United States, thanks to the discovery of 16th-century Spanish pottery pieces earlier this spring, any local could have told you that our city houses a fair share of multicultural heritage. It goes without saying that our history is a vital part of what makes our city unique and it is precisely why we endearingly refer to our home as the “City of Five Flags.”

But, what does it mean to call a site “historic”? And how does preserving an “old” building help bring in new money, jobs and profit for the city? The answer requires a rather in-depth explanation that we’ve tried our best to break down for easy reader digestion. To better help us understand just how history is made, we offer a glimpse into the procedures of the City’s Architectural Review Board and UWF Historic Trust, showing how both groups make a decision on what properties meet historic preservation and designation criteria.

First and foremost, before calling or designating a property as historic, a case must be built and presented to the Architectural Review Board (ARB) to argue why a building should be considered historic property.

“It’s been hard to put information about preservation together in a way people can understand in the short tidbits that people want,” said Ross Pristera, historic preservationist with the Historic Trust and ARB. “Preservation is not just about an individual building, but how that building and its history plays into the larger picture. That’s preservation: looking at the larger picture, long term effects, and protecting the uniqueness of a site because it is an asset that will better the community.”

There are two main criteria the ARB looks for: the property must be 50 years or older, and it must have either history or an architectural style that is significant to a historic time period. By “having history,” we mean the site is attached to a person of historical interest or significance, or a noteworthy event must have taken place at the site.

Following that line of thought, in some cases, the ARB will consider designating a building that is less than 50 years old for historic status. This is only if the property was either the site of a major event, or the building is part of a period style found throughout its surrounding neighborhood.

For example, does the building share characteristics with others around it? If so, then one can build the case that building has cultural merit as part of “a working class neighborhood of the 1880s.” In other words, the neighborhood and the time period it represents would be rendered imperfect with the sudden addition of a modern building.

In terms of how much of a historic property can be changed in renovation, you may alter the site as you please so long as you are not located in a historic district. You also have restrictions to what you can alter if you are getting federal money to put into the property.

If you are in a historic district, then you have to follow the rules already established by the district. If you are getting federal money for preservation efforts, then chances are the property is for public use and the funds must be used to renovate or repair aspects of the building the public can utilize.

Here in Pensacola we have four historic districts and one aesthetic review district. The four historic districts are as follows: East Hill, Pensacola (better known as Seville), North Hill and Palafox Business districts.

The districts of North Hill and Seville are most restrictive in terms of what can be changed on property—from limiting paint colors to what type of windows may be installed.

Seville and North Hill historic districts are on the National Register of Historic Places, and part of Palafox Historic Business District was listed on the register this year.

The National Register of Historic Places is administered through the National Park Service and contains the official list of historic places in the United States deemed worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, it is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.

The Palafox Historic Business District, spanning from Chase to Zaragoza streets and Spring to Tarragona streets in Downtown Pensacola, made it on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to the efforts of University of West Florida public history alumna, Cynthia Catellier. The Palafox Historic Business District includes 129 properties, and its addition brings the total of National Register properties in Downtown Pensacola to nearly 600. National Register inclusion offers a variety of benefits, including tax credits, real estate and tourism support, and grant opportunities.

The UWF Historic Trust has a total of 1,800 historic properties in Downtown Pensacola, and they work to maintain those records so they are well-researched and documented for home- and business owners, as well as architects, who may want to restore the property to its former glory.

This past year, the Historic Trust has had a successful period of grants, which totaled in at roughly $244,000.

Traditionally, government agencies and nonprofits receive more tax incentives from state and federal grants. Almost all of these incentives require a dollar-for-dollar match.

Florida has a generous preservation program on the state level, and there are two preservation grants: one is a small matching grant, offering anywhere from $1 to $50,000 for which smaller nonprofits, churches, and other organizations usually apply. It is a very competitive grant for which you have a year to complete the project under. The second is a special category grant ranging from $50,000 to $500,000, which can be matched for up to a million dollar project, and with this grant you have two years to complete the project.

The small matching grant has always been offered on the state level. However, since the Recession more money has gone into matching grants since funding preservation projects gives a lot of people more work—from specialized engineering to design and construction jobs.

To further establish incentives for communities to go forward with preservation efforts, rural communities can meet a 25 percent match of funds, which helps out the communities so they can restore a historic jewel to attract people and stir development.

‘That’s what it’s all about,” said Pristera. “We put money into a building and we hope the person next to us does the same and that’s how we build off each other.”

For private companies, if you’re tax- or income-producing property, then you could go for tax credits from the federal government.

But, what about tax incentives for homeowners whose properties do not generate income? You may go through a paperwork-heavy process to apply for a program called the Historic Property Ad Valorem Tax Exemption. Essentially, if renovating a historic house, any money you put toward restoring materials will lower the taxable amount of your property’s new appraised value, and your house’s appraised value remains consistent for 10 years.

Preservation tends to be more cost efficient for property owners, since you do not have to factor in demolition and disposal costs, as well as the price of new materials. This is because most preservation efforts take an old building and give it a new use, preserving areas that are most intact and rehabbing the interior as needed so cost is minimal.

Moreover, if you are restoring an older building, then you do not have to meet the same, strict requirements as new buildings must. Of course, the older building must be deemed safe and stable, but you have more flexibility in terms of water retention and hurricane codes.

Before any type of project can begin on a property designated historic, a proposal must be drawn up and submitted to the City of Pensacola’s ARB for approval.

The ARB looks at a number of factors and potential impacts, such as: whether or not the development will benefit the community, and the board judges the appropriateness of the architectural plan for a new building in terms of how it relates and communicates with the neighborhood around it. They also consider whether or not the old building could and should be moved and saved before considering demolition.

The ARB’s reviewing process can take anywhere from four to eight months, which not only allows time for their own investigation of a historic property, but allows the community time to submit their input regarding the proposal for the site.

The Sunday House, for example, was an unusual case for the ARB. For starters, a proposal was not submitted to the ARB prior to working out a plan for the property. Although the ARB’s evaluation of a property typically begins with a proposal, followed by a board member’s visit to the property, the ARB conducted a site visit before reviewing the application for the Sunday House.

The ARB visited the property in response to receiving a report that the site was structurally unsound, plus it contained mold and asbestos. However, the ARB determined the building was not as changed as the report had implied, and as far as the ARB was concerned the property was in better condition than many other properties that the board has helped restore.

As it stands now, the ARB does not believe the plans proposed for the Sunday House will set the right architectural language for the rest of the neighborhood. The proposal contains plans for a parking lot that does not meet the City’s code and the property will not meet water retention codes.

The ARB has to consider a range of questions about the property, such as how will it look in the surrounding neighborhood. The plans for the Sunday House property show over 20 townhomes in a single location, which gives the impression of an isolated island of dense houses in an area without similar development.

Even though the ARB has tabled proposals in the past, it is very rare that they ever deny a proposal. Over the past 10 years, the ARB has tabled roughly 90 proposals to get more information about a property before it was lost.

Ultimately, the ARB aims to speak for the community and they want successful projects that will move forward to completion. They want to confirm plans for the Sunday House property will benefit the community in the long term, and, for this reason, the ARB is calling for a drastic revision of site proposal if the plans for Sunday House are to move forward.

While there are arguments that preservation stifles development, the truth is exactly opposite: preservation creates jobs and encourages heritage tourism—meaning an increase in visitors coming to Pensacola (and spending money) because of our area’s unique history.

From our Spanish forts like Pickens and Barrancas to the iconic Pensacola Lighthouse, the value of preservation is not only in retaining such landmarks and properties that make our area special, but in the positive impact of preserving these pieces of history for bettering our economy by increasing jobs and tourism.

“If you look at Pensacola over the years,” said Pristera. “It’s clear that using the resources we have, including our history, has played into the success of where we are now. Part of the Palafox Business District has been added to the national register and Palafox Street is one of the Top 10 Great Streets in America.”