by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
The city of Pensacola’s relatively freshly formed Urban Core Redevelopment Board is exploring some less familiar territory. The board was assembled earlier this year to advise city officials on priorities within the Urban Core Community Redevelopment Area — traditionally heavy on streetscapes and the overall renaissance of downtown — and this week members laid out items they considered of top import within the CRA: affordable housing and community policing.
This exploration of a new philosophy was summed up late in a special meeting Wednesday when UCRB member Drew Buchanan reflected on the inherent irony contained within an earlier presentation extolling the ripple effects, such as an increase in property values, of a well-managed CRA.
“Those are great for developers,” Buchanan said of the economic ripple effects, “it’s not great for people who can’t afford to live here — you know, we didn’t talk about gentrification.”
Areas of recent focus for the CRA — and for members of the city council, who also comprise the city’s CRA board — include working toward waterfront access improvements, specifically with improvements slated for Bruce Beach, as well as the so-called Hashtag streetscape plans for the heart of downtown, and also, more recently, a public-private partnership streetscape project for what developers have christened the East Garden District and envision as the next mixed-use bonanza.
In contrast to these economic and development-oriented efforts, the UCRB is recommending that focuses be shifted onto a more societal-centric path. For example, the CRA has already signed onto municipal efforts to realize 500 units of affordable housing within five years, but Buchanan suggested that perhaps the CRA should consider putting some real skin in the game and offer up one of its downtown parking lots to be developed into dense, multi-story affordable housing: “like Southtown, but more affordable.”
“We’re not going to get it done with ones and twosies,” he said with an eye toward the city’s 500-units goal.
Buchanan suggested that the CRA should act aggressively to facilitate the development of affordable housing within the urban core.
“I want the CRA to pay for these projects,” he said, “not just the land, but the development also.”
Pensacola City Councilwoman Ann Hill agreed that the CRA could become more engaged in the affordable housing discussion and pointed toward a potential source of some funding: an $18 million bond currently earmarked for street and waterfront connectivity improvements.
“Maybe we need to redirect some of that money for what you’re talking about,” Hill said.
UCRB Chairman Christopher Satterwhite also agreed that affordable housing within the neighborhoods near downtown should be a top priority, noting that housing considered affordable by workforce-level residents was quickly climbing beyond reach.
“I have friends that are moving,” the chairman said.
As for the board’s recommendation that community policing become a higher priority within the CRA, the chairman nodded towards the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer earlier this year, and the ensuing national protest against systemic racism within law enforcement.
“All of that could have been Pensacola, easily,” Satterwhite said, pointing back to the 2019 shooting death of Tymar Crawford, who was killed by a former Pensacola Police Department detective during a traffic stop.
Currently, the CRA chips in around $100,000 annually to fund a pair of police to patrol the area on bicycles, as opposed to police vehicles. The effort is a partnership with the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board.
In January, UCRB members will have a chance to further discuss this issue and how the CRA can become more engaged in the discussion concerning community-police dynamics when a PPD representative is scheduled to appear before the board.
In addition to identifying these two areas of focus — affordable housing and community policing — as top priorities within the CRA, the UCRB also hit upon some areas they would like to further discuss. These include the potential for conducting various surveys — surveys of trees and bike racks and brick streets — as well as diving into broader issues such as homelessness.
Some of these exploratory items fall outside the traditional scope of the CRA. The issue of homelessness, for example, is a community-wide issue demanding the attention of multiple local governments and community agencies across the region.
“It’s symbolic,” Buchanan said of including matters such as homelessness in the board’s priority recommendations to the CRA board, explaining that the move would signal that members considered homelessness “one of the biggest issues in the city” and also connected to affordable housing.
Then again, maybe it’s not entirely symbolic — as Councilwoman Hill noted, needed facilities such as public restrooms and a day-use center could well be located within the urban core CRA.
“I think that needs to be part of the discussion,” Hill said.