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Thursday July 24th 2014

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The Dead End Debate

Empty seats at yesterday’s Pensacola City Council Committee of the Whole meeting were few and far between. Most of them were filled with someone there to speak about Mayor Ashton Hayward’s plan to connect Government Street with Ninth Avenue.

“I’ve not asked the audience what they’re here to speak about, but I can guess,” said Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall. “I can only ask that we not get too emotional about it.”

Following through on past city plans, Hayward has called for Government Street—which currently dead ends—to be opened up. The Mayor’s office contends that the move will offer a free-flowing opening into the city’s historic district.

President Hall requested that attendees in opposition to the road opening raise their hands. A majority of the gallery raised their hands.

In the early 1980s, Pensacola officials decided to seal off Government Street. By the end of the decade they decided they wanted to open it back up.

A roundabout had been planned for the area originally, but when the state funds for the project didn’t materialize that concept was scrapped. Several citizens, as well as council members, said they preferred the project with the roundabout.

“The previous plans called for a rotary,” said Hall. “That made complete sense to me. The drawing I saw this past week, really your only good option is turning right—and that’s not really a good option.”

Councilwoman Sheri Myers took issue with the fact that the city had not yet conducted a traffic study in planning for the project—“I find that just incredible”—as well as the lack of a roundabout.

“Quite frankly, when I look at it, it just looks crazy,” she said.

Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds said that the roundabout—or, rotary—was not an option. The roundabout version of the project was slated to cost considerably more than the current plan, which comes in at around $78,000.

“If we were to do a rotary,” Reynolds said, “you’re looking at a half-million dollars at least, and we don’t have it.”

The city administrator also said that the roundabout presented logistical and environmental issues. In order to accommodate that project, the city would need to fill and build out into Pensacola Bay.

“There’s simply not enough space to put a rotary in there,” he said. “We’d simply have to push out into the bay.”

While there were a handful of business owners present at yesterday’s meeting in support of the planned street opening—“I do like the right hand turn,” joked Seville Quarter’s Buck Mitchell, “because then they can make the turn and come right back to me.”—a majority of the people attending the meeting were residents opposed to the idea.

David Dodson told the council that he owns a residential property near the Government Street dead end. He complained that the city had not involved property owners when the street was closed, and it didn’t appear they planned to involve them in the street’s opening.

“Thirty-two years later,” he said, “I don’t see why it’s a rush without the input of the neighborhood.”

Councilman Ronald Townsend seemed surprised by the comment. He asked for elaboration on the amount of public input on the proposed project.

“Zero, zero, zero,” Dodson told him.

The lack of public involvement did not sit well with most of the council members. Councilman Brian Spencer—who represents the district in question and was the plan’s main proponent on the council—withdrew his motion to go ahead with the project. He instead presented the council with a motion—which passed unanimously—to send the matter back to the mayor and wait for the city to schedule public input workshops on the project. The motion seemed to reflect the sentiment of most of the council members.

“This was an awfully difficult decision in the beginning,” said Councilman P.C. Wu. “As I sat here and listened it became easier and easier.”

Wu said that the lack of public involvement was the deciding factor for him. He said he couldn’t support the project since it had not been put through such a process.

“That was the trigger that made me completely change my mind,” Wu said.

Today, Mayor Hayward reiterated his support for the project. He said the opening was necessary to open up Pensacola’s historic district.

Council President Hall had made similar comments during the Committee of the Whole meeting, referring to the historic district as a “real jewel.”

“To enjoy that jewel you need to increase the accessibility,” Hall said yesterday.