By Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
Prior to the plan’s proper unveiling Monday evening at The Rex Theatre, the Pensacola City Council was offered an early-morning glimpse at a proposal for the downtown core aimed at improving waterfront access, walkability and connectivity.
“We can make it a much more multimodal experience and connect the east side and west side of the city,” said Gena Wirth, an landscape architect with SCAPE.
Over the past half year, SCAPE has worked with the local community — hosting a series of input sessions and presentations — to come up with a vision for the downtown core that improves access to Pensacola Bay and creates a walkable, bikeable flow from the Pensacola Bay Bridge to beyond Maritime Park. The New York City-based firm was brought to town on the dime of businessman and developer Quint Studer, and while the plan has been paid for, the follow-through will require significant buy-in and funding commitments from the city.
As part of SCAPE’s waterfront plan, the firm focused on two so-called catalytic projects, meant as net gains for the overall community and calculated as drivers of both economic and societal progressions.
The first proposed catalytic project involves the development of Bruce Beach, to the north of Maritime Park, as a community, waterfront space. The development entails connecting the public waterfront with Main Street via a park-like atmosphere with features like a kayak storage facility, as well as a 15,000 to 20,000 square foot educational center that focuses on the area’s ecology, ever-evolving relationship with the waterfront, as well as the space’s culture and history, particularly its historical importance in the local African American community.
Wirth described Bruce Beach as “a little slice of nature” nestled within the urban core. She also noted how the site, at 11.5 acres, is relatively large; for a point of reference, she explained, the nearby Admiral Mason Park is only 7.5 acres, while Bryant Park in her native New York City is 9 acres.
“It’s an incredible space,” Wirth said.
James Lima, an economic strategist, also from New York City, spoke to the expected economic benefits of the proposals being made for Bruce Beach. In general, he said, public spaces that people want to hang out in tend to drive surrounding real estate values upward.
“A park strategy is really a strategic part of a places economic strategy,” Lima said, ballparking valuation increases for properties within a couple of hundred feet of a public park at around 20 percent. “— we think there’s a strong stimulative effect that will occur.”
In addition to developing the Bruce Beach area, SCAPE’s other catalytic project proposal is being referred to as the Waterfront Hashtag Connector project. It involves creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown corridor and is roughly framed by streets — Main, Cedar, Palafox and Jefferson — that combine to form a ‘hashtag.’
The Hashtag project involves road diets, bike lanes and crosswalks, as well as curbs, protective barriers and bioswales. It is designed to de-emphasis infrastructure for vehicular traffic, while making the area more inviting to pedestrians.
One the more dramatic elements involves transitioning a stretch of Cedar Street to a so-called woonerf street, meaning living street, to accommodate a plaza-like environment; the streetscape would feature alternating bioswales on either side of the road to slow vehicles down and would also allow for the street to be closed to cars altogether when desired.
Lima outlined the projected property value increases associated with both of these catalytic projects, as well as the projected property tax revenue city government might see.
As a benefit of the Bruce Beach improvements, Lima projected that existing properties would see a combined $2.8 million increase in assessed value, and new properties would add another $6.6 million to that, for a total property tax benefit to the city of about $1.7 million.
The Hashtag project, he said, would result in existing properties jumping $29.6 million in value, while new properties generated $27.9 million in value. That would mean $11.6 million for the city tax rolls.
“We think our numbers are extremely conservative,” he said.
City council members — who will eventually be asked to come up with the funding for SCAPE’s vision — were fairly receptive to the plans outlined Monday morning.
“My gut reaction is, I look at these slides and think: I want to be there,” said Councilman Jarad Moore.
“It’s a great plan and something we’ve got to get to work on,” agreed Council President Andy Terhaar.
Councilman P.C. Wu drew comparisons between SCAPE’s proposal and Maritime Park, which he said had played a large role in the revitalization of downtown.
“This is a chance for us to have another transformative moment,” Wu said. “This is a chance for us to transform the city for a second time.”
— SCAPE will outline its proposed plans for the general public this evening during an installment of CivicCon. The event is scheduled for 6 p.m. at The Rex Theatre in downtown Pensacola.