Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Spilling Onto the Sidewalks

Regulating Downtown Growth
By Jeremy Morrison

As Pensacola’s downtown grows, the party on South Palafox is starting to seem like a real good time. Sidewalks have sprung to life, with drinks enjoyed under the stars of Saturday-night skies.

But this emerging street party atmosphere is not being celebrated in all quarters.

“You’ll go out on some mornings—especially Sunday—and find human waste,” said Deborah Dunlap.

The downtown property owner and resident recently relayed the after-party scene to a group gathered for a meeting of the Downtown Improvement Board’s Business and Development Committee. She painted a vivid picture of a Palafox business owner’s displeasure with the growing party’s ramifications.

“It is not fair for him to have to pay to clean up someone else’s puke on a Sunday morning, when it wasn’t there when he closed Saturday afternoon,” Dunlap said.

The DIB committee had called the special meeting to look over some newly proposed regulations the city is planning to apply to License to Use applicants. It was 8 o’clock in the morning and Nick Zangari, having stormed out of bed in gym shorts with his briefcase ready for battle, looked like he’d rather be just about anywhere other than where he was.

“You want to read the original city contract for the sidewalk?” he asked, waving around an aged document early on in the meeting. “Look how yellow and old it is.”

Zangari owns New York Nick’s, a South Palafox establishment that offers outdoor seating on the sidewalk. He and other downtown business owners showed up at the DIB committee meeting upon learning there were new License to Use regulations being drafted.

“I found out about this in the middle of the night, 12 hours ago,” Zangari said to his fellow bar owners. “I didn’t know about any of this. Did you know about any of this?”

The business owners seemed leery of the prospects. Zangari had already termed the meeting “underhanded” and said the city was “trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” while Hopjacks owner Joe Abston was warning that “you are starting down a very slippery slope.”

“We all want to work together,” said Matt LaFon, co-owner of the recently opened World of Beer. “If there’s a problem, we want to know so we can work together to solve it.”

Committee Chairman Chip Otwell tried to quell the business owners’ concerns.

“I don’t think anyone’s saying you’re doing anything wrong,” he said. “They’re just trying to get everything uniform.”

Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the DIB, had phrased it with a little more teeth the day before: “You can’t have the wild, Wild West out there and have everybody doing what they want to do.”

According to City Administrator Bill Reynolds, the city has been looking to draw up some new regulations for about a year and a half. He said the number of recent LTU applications from multiple new downtown businesses has increased the city’s attention to the matter.

“As we see more growth downtown, it’s become clear that we really need to have some guidelines,” Reynolds said. “If we spell it out, then everybody knows exactly what to expect.”

During the committee meeting, City Councilman Brian Spencer, who is also on the DIB, told the business owners that they needed to let go of the “simplicity of a bygone era.” He said that the increased number of businesses making use of their respective sidewalk frontage necessitated new regulations.

“We’ve matured, we’ve become more sophisticated as a downtown,” Spencer said.

The city councilman relayed how the city had conducted a public planning board workshop on the new regulations in June. He called the attendance “very encouraging” and said the group discussed such issues as American Disability Act compliance.

“We tried to really get it out there when we were doing this workshop,” Ryan Winterberg-Lipp, Community Redevelopment Agency administrator, said later.

The CRA Administrator said the LTU regulations had been “part of a larger conversation for a long time.” She said the same process currently covers everything from residential driveways to outdoors cafes, and was “pretty cumbersome for just table and chairs.”

“From staff perspective, it’s something that we’ve been wanting to clarify for a while,” Winterberg-Lipp said.

While the need for clarifying standards is being spurred by the proliferation of outdoor dining on Palafox, the new regulations will be applied citywide.

“If someone wanted to have a sidewalk cafe in East Hill, where City Grocery is, it would apply to them,” the CRA Administrator said. “Seville, it would apply to them.”

Aside from ADA standards and furniture placement, the city’s proposed regulations address hours of operation, noise and maintenance fees. They stress pedestrian access and the accommodation of a mixed-use environment.

“Mixed-use is really the key,” Kimbrough told the business owners, explaining that retail, restaurants and entertainment venues needed to comfortably coexist with residents.

Dunlap is also a vocal proponent of mixed-use compatibility.

“We’re a 24-hour, mixed-use business district now,” Dunlap said in the committee meeting. “Entertainment is only one part of it.”

The next day, Dunlap said she was glad the DIB’s input was being requested by the city. Along with the business owners, the committee members—Dunlap and Otwell were the only two in attendance—made multiple adjustments to the city’s proposed regulations.

“We are on the brink of a phenomenal success story, and everybody in that room plays a part,” she said. “I am so happy that we are having an opportunity to wrap our arms around something that is going to make us better.”

The city’s proposed regulations include the prohibition of outdoor music and speaker systems—provisions that the DIB committee meeting attendees disagreed with—as well as aesthetic guidelines. The new rules also establish LTU fees and designate a portion of the permit fees for cleaning sidewalks.

After the full DIB passes on its recommendations to the city, the planning board and, eventually, the city council will take up the issue. During those discussions, business owners—as well as the general public—will have the further opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

“There’s still plenty of time for flexibility,” said Winterberg-Lipp, explaining that the issue wouldn’t be coming before the planning board until Sept. 18.

City Administrator Reynolds said that the city council would be discussing the regulations during their next couple of meetings.

“We’re looking to have this done relatively quickly,” he said.