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Tossing Tomatoes at the Drawing Board

E. Government Reconnect Hits Roadblock
By Jeremy Morrison

Halfway through the meeting, Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer stepped away from the microphone. Friendly hecklers were growing louder.

“Sit down, Brian,” snapped an older woman who had only just finished berating Seville Quarter owner Wilmer Mitchell.

Spencer sought refuge on the back row, trading exaggerated expressions with Councilwoman Sherri Myers. The final public input session on restoring the Historic District’s street grid—and, more specifically, reconnecting East Government Street to Ninth Avenue—was wearing thin.

Earlier this spring, Mayor Ashton Hayward proposed opening up the currently closed-off East Government Street. The Pensacola City Council requested that public input be gathered before it addressed the issue.

In response to that request, the mayor scheduled workshops addressing the city’s overall historic district. Throughout the month of July, the public attended a series of meetings hosted by the city and the West Florida Regional Planning Council.

The series of meetings have been labeled as “Restore the Grid” workshops, and involved discussions on a broader complete streets concept, which places emphasis on pedestrian-friendly environments. The public, however, made their focus clear from the beginning.

“You’re dying to open up Government Street, right?” asked a resident during the initial meeting.

Alan Gray, a regional planner with the WFRPC, said that he suggested the expanded scope— “I put this grandiose title on this thing, I called it ‘Restore the Grid’”—and that he was approaching the issue from a planner’s perspective. He felt city officials were coming from an engineer’s perspective and focusing too heavily on the East Government reconnect.

“I think city officials listened to me on a lot of things as to what we should do and they kind of went with me,” Gray said. “—I mean, the mayor’s not an urban planner.”

Though the public input sessions have covered a much broader area than the reconnect—with participants splitting into smaller groups in order to sketch out an overall vision for the historic district—the meetings were meant to fulfill the city council’s request. The public’s feedback will be presented to the council in a report from the WFRPC.

“I’m just basically giving them the power to make an informed decision based on what these people think,” Gray explained.

The final meeting in the series went about like the first three. While the public is somewhat responsive to crosswalks and roundabouts, they have not expressed much enthusiasm for the East
Government reconnect. It has become what Gray calls “the elephant in the room” or “the crux of the entire discussion.”

“I mean, they don’t want their street opened to an express way,” the planner said a day prior to the final meeting. “But they do like these ideas of safety and lighting and bicycle lanes—they like all those things.”

For the entirety of the series, participants were asked to think big. Cost and logistics were not to interfere with the dreamscape. As Gray put it in the last meeting, they were writing a wish list: “We want to be careful with reality … we can’t ask for a dragon, but we can ask for a street light.”

During the final meeting, Gray attempted to compile a list of the public’s suggestions concerning the historic district. They were in favor of pedestrian-activated crosswalks and “acorn” lighting and six-foot sidewalks. But they did not, by an overwhelming margin, want East Government reconnected.

Gray suggested they “prepare some ideas” in case the city decided to reconnect the street. The room was not receptive—“don’t propose a fallback position, there is no fallback position”—for fear it would pave the way for the city to open up the street.

“Quite frankly, as far as I’m concerned these people are the city,” Councilwoman Myers said at the meeting. “When this does come before the city council, I think that they’re going to be very responsive to what the citizens want.”

While the WFRPC will present its findings to the city council on Aug. 9 and 23, it is not clear what the board is to do with the information. According to city spokesperson Derek Cosson, the mayor’s original reconnect proposal that the council was to consider is no longer in play.

“We don’t have any plans to bring that original proposal back unless that’s what comes out of these meetings and I don’t suspect that’s what’s going to happen,” Cosson said. “I can’t imagine the original proposal is coming back.”