It wasn’t that long ago that the heart of downtown was bordered by the funky Pensacola Municipal “Bayfront” Auditorium at one end of South Palafox and the ghost of the San Carlos Hotel at the other.
The heyday was over. The action had fled to the malls and the multiplexes in minivans. Leaving history for the new houses in the new suburbs.
Downtown Pensacola followed the lead of downtowns around the country, limping into a late century slump. Properties sat vacant as the stank emanating from the now-dismantled wastewater treatment facility wafted through the empty streets. During working hours, attorneys and tumbleweeds shuffled between offices.
But in recent years, downtown has been experiencing what some people like to call a renaissance. Bars and boutiques and cafes line Palafox. There’s Vinyl Music Hall anchoring one end of the strip, as the new Maritime Park beckons people to the waterfront for a ballgame.
Pedicabs pedal folks from here to there underneath Saturday night fireworks. People are drinking wine on the sidewalk in the middle of a Thursday afternoon.
GHOST TOWN REVIVAL On the north side of Garden Street, it’s still considered a relatively quiet stretch of Palafox. It lacks the hustle and bustle of the blocks to the south. Except on Saturdays, when there’s three blocks worth of hustle and bustle squeezed into the center median.
For the past few years, the Palafox Market has grown progressively larger. It has evolved into a considerable stroll past paintings and vegetables, past honey and soap and jewelry.
“This makes downtown a weekend destination,” said Eric Woder.
Woder has had good seats from which to watch the farmer’s market grow. He and Rhonda Keen pitch their Keen’s Beans coffee tent on Palafox every weekend.
As a steady flow of people dipped in for a cup of hot coffee or bag of beans from Costa Rica, Woder recalled how Pensacola’s downtown wasn’t always so lively.
“Use to live up on La Rua. Saturday and Sunday you could come down here with your dog and your bicycle and it was like a ghost town,” he said. “We didn’t even bring leashes. It was like 10-cars-an-hour-kind-of-thing.”
Heading away from the farmer’s market and into the heart of downtown, Ana Stewart pushes her baby in a stroller. Neither seem to be in a hurry.
“I like downtown,” she said, stopping to talk. “It’s definitely gotten better.”
Stewart grew up in Pensacola. At 32, the young mother has taken notice of the downtown area’s change since the days of her youth.
“Today, I’m getting together with another friend that has a baby and we’re going strolling and having lunch,” Stewart said. “But at night, I like to come down here and have dinner with my husband, maybe see a play at Pensacola Little Theater or go down to Jaco’s and watch the sun set.”
The mother and baby continued across Garden and past New York Nick’s. Nestled near the corner, the bar and restaurant is one of the oldest on the strip.
“Right around 2000, urban sprawl stopped, it stopped to exist,” said owner Nick Zangari.
Betting on downtown’s revival, Zangari set up shop early. He joined the handful of businesses already in the area and grabbed a prime spot on Palafox.
“Obviously, Palafox was the number one spot,” the business owner said. “That was the spot, that was gonna be the spot.”
For a few years, the street murmured just beneath the radar. Then Hopjacks opened across the street, and other new eateries soon followed. Zangari welcomes the neighbors.
“Love it,” he said. “The more the better.”
Inside Hopjacks, the lights are low and the beer list is as long as the menu. Taking a seat at a table near the bar, owner Joe Abston reflected on downtown’s evolution just since his arrival a few years ago.
“There was nothing around,” he said. “At five o’clock, the sidewalks just kind of rolled up and went away—which is a complete 180 of what it is now.”
These days, the sidewalks on Palafox stay well-walked throughout the day, with the nine-to-five crowd fading seamlessly into those looking for something to do after hours. Abston has been confident enough in downtown to open another Palafox restaurant this year—the Tin Cow—with yet another to be announced soon.
“I believe in it so heavily that I’ve hedged my bets in downtown Pensacola,” he said. “It’s almost inevitable. The growth is already happening. This is a momentum that is not going to be slowed down.”
When Zangari envisions the downtown Pensacola of the future, he hopes for a thriving, vibrant city-center. Maybe a cruise ship operating out of the port, and who knows what else.
“There is so much potential—to develop, to occupy, to redevelop,” Zangari said, tossing about the possibilities and recent milestones. “Look at the ballpark, look at the land you have now where the old stink-factory was.”
New York Nick’s got in early on downtown’s renaissance. Zangari thinks it may be early still.
“There’s still so much potential,” he said.
DON’T SAY ‘POTENTIAL’ Brian Hooper doesn’t much care for the word ‘potential.’ As head of the Mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee, he asked that the committee members refrain from using the word.
“They all say the same thing, ‘Pensacola has a lot of potential,’” Hooper said. “The word ‘potential’ to me means you are not where you need to be. We have a lot of ‘options.’”
Hooper, an attorney at Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon, wasn’t expecting to be sitting on a downtown advisory committee prior to being tapped by Mayor Ashton Hayward to lead the body.
“I’m in gym on Saturday morning and I get a call from Mayor Hayward,” he recalled.
From the get-go, the attorney said, there was speculation in some camps that the mayor would be loading the committee up with a predetermined agenda. Hooper did not find that to be the case.
“There was nothing to rubber stamp, there was nothing there,” he said. “I think he honestly wants objective recommendations and that’s what we’re going to give him.”
Since February, the advisory committee has been discussing the future growth and development of downtown. They have heard from planning experts, neighborhood associations and governmental agencies. The have held a marathon charrette session and poured over countless reports.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there have been hundreds of reports done on downtown over the years from various entities,” Hooper said, explaining that the committee made a point of chasing down the reports, some of which could only be found in the University of West Florida’s archives. “I don’t want anyone saying to my committee, ‘Oh, if you’d just read that 1976 document it would have all been clear to you.’”
Hooper isn’t unfamiliar with revitalized urban centers. He grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his dad worked downtown at city hall.
“When I was growing up, downtown was blighted and depressed,” Hooper said. “Downtown Pasadena sucked.”
In recent years, his hometown has kicked its downtown into gear. It’s become a destination.
“Now people from UCLA go hang out at Old Town Pasadena, they call it,” Hooper said. “It’s an exciting place, it’s a place you want to be.”
While his committee has not yet compiled its report to the mayor, the committee chairman did list off some key elements that would need to be considered going forward. In order to successfully continue to grow downtown, the city needed to be business friendly and needed a larger stock of affordable housing.
Seven months into his committee’s work, Hooper isn’t entirely sure of the way forward. But he’s pretty sure it’s going to require a multi-faceted plan.
“People are looking for a silver bullet. People want some grand idea to fix everything, to improve the economy, to improve downtown, to make this place cool,” Hooper said. “But that’s not how the world works.”
The committee head said he believed downtown would grow organically, taking small steps gradually, if the conditions were right.
“One business opens, then another, then a cafe next to it,” Hooper said. “People want a silver bullet, but we need to manage expectations. There are no silver bullets, there are small incremental steps.”
This fall, the committee will issue a final report. It’s currently soliciting ideas from the public.
“I want anyone that has an idea to share that idea with us,” Hooper said.
The committee head isn’t sure what recommendations for the mayor the report will contain or what downtown Pensacola may look like in the future. When he took a moment in his office to consider what kind of downtown he wants for his children as they grow up, the attorney drifted into a zen-flavored description of a place that people wanted to be simply was because it was there.
“I want downtown to be a place where you go—” Hooper said, pausing. “It’s like ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ Winnie the Pooh is talking to Tigger, he says ‘He’s my best friend. Everyone else I do stuff with. When I’m with him we don’t do anything.’ That’s how downtown should be.”
REGULATION OF A GOOD THING Much like its owner, New York Nick’s is a pretty passionate establishment. Classic rock memorabilia bleeds from the walls, as sporting events from around the world play on an army of television screens scattered throughout the bar. The place really gets hopping during the NFL season.
Recently, the Pensacola Planning Board sat and listened as Zangari told them about a night a few years back when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. It had been a pretty big deal on his corner of South Palafox.
“You know what happened?” Zangari asked. “The police got called because they were spilling out into the street because the Red Sox won the World Series.”
A few days later, he elaborated. There had been a particular downtown resident who was not a fan of the emerging scene on Palafox, or apparently, the Red Sox. His complaints, his calls to the police regarding noise were irritating to Zangari.
“He called when the damned Red Sox won the World Series!” he said, recalling a police officer’s response to the man. “He told him two things: buy earplugs or move.”
New York Nick’s Red Sox street party is illustrative of certain hurdles downtown must traverse along its evolutionary path. As the district grows, players in the downtown landscape must reckon with a few issues. What kind of party are they having and how loud is it gonna get?
In an attempt to define the parameters of the party, the city of Pensacola is looking to draw up regulations that will govern how businesses may use the sidewalks fronting their establishments. In addition to laying out aesthetic requirements, the rules will address everything from American Disability Act standards to hours of operation and noise.
“These are all growing pains and they’re great problems to have,” explained Kim Kimbrough, outgoing executive director of the Downtown Improvement Board. “There has to be some happy-medium, if you will, for all the different uses downtown.”
As far as Zangari is concerned, downtown has one primary role. It is the city’s hub. Increasingly, it’s where the action is. People just happen to live there, too.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s been redeveloped.”
Recently, as the DIB’s Business and Development Committee poured over the proposed city regulations, Zangari shared this view with fellow downtown stakeholders.
“If you live downtown, you’re going to have a problem,” he told them. “It’s a commercial-business district.”
Kimbrough took issue with that designation.
“That’s a 1960s definition,” the DIB head said.
Kimbrough prefers to stress downtown’s “mixed-use” environment. He envisions the professional and personal coexisting in relative harmony.
“All of those things make downtowns alive and vibrant,” he said.
Pensacola City Councilman and Chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency Brian Spencer agrees. Having lived downtown for 25 years, he feels the area can accommodate multiple uses.
“This is something that is dealt with all over the world,” Spencer said during the planning board meeting. “This is not rocket science.”
In early September, during the DIB committee meeting, the councilman had explained that downtown business owners needed to let go of the “simplicity of a bygone era.” He told them that downtown’s growth demanded regulations that would guide it into the future.
“We’ve matured, we’ve become more sophisticated as a downtown,” Spencer said.
Another big proponent of mixed-use accommodation is Deborah Dunlap. The downtown resident and property owner is a passionate preacher of the Gospel of Mixed-Use.
“I think we’re going to have to be a little more understanding that this is a 24-hour urban core,” Dunlap said recently.
Recently, World of Beer opened its doors on Palafox a short distance from Dunlap’s upper level residence. With its open-air street-party atmosphere—featuring live music drifting freely into the night sky—the establishment has quickly become an increasingly hopping corner.
“We’ve known for a long time that music is a blessing when done right,” Dunlap explained. “Music, when forced upon the public, is abusive.”
Dunlap is fond of the term “voluntary listener.” She has developed a reputation as someone who is serious about sound.
During a recent DIB meeting, Zangari said that the new regulations for downtown were being pushed by “a certain woman who shall remain nameless.”
“It’s not Double-D, is it?” laughed DIB Chairman Burney Merrill.
Earlier, during the DIB’s committee meeting, Dunlap had explained her position.
“It makes sense that any noise—music—be limited,” she said. “We’re a 24-hour, mixed-use business district now. Entertainment is only part of it.”
Another downtown resident, John Peacock, was also in attendance at the committee meeting. He had a different take, arguing that downtown did not need increased noise regulations.
“It seems like it’s working out just fine,” Peacock said.
“You’re so cute, John,” Dunlap smiled.
Later, Peacock explained that he felt Dunlap was pushing for regulations that would effectively hamper the growth of downtown. She was spoiling the party.
“My concern is there’s some underlying agenda with this noise issue,” he said.
Peacock, who lives a street removed from the strip, said he thinks Palafox residents should understand how downtown is evolving. It is becoming more vibrant and lively—and noisy.
“There was a reason I picked Baylen Street, rather than Palafox,” Peacock said.
Dunlap is quick to clarify that she is not opposed to downtown’s growth and the associated scene. She’s a big fan of the comforting music piped out of DIB-installed speakers during the holiday season—“to keep people happy and shopping”—and she’s wild about The Leisure Club’s vibrant sidewalk spread.
“By george, they hit it out of the park when they put up those green and white umbrellas and those green chairs,” Dunlap said, describing TLC’s outdoor cafe as “a remarkable addition to the landscape.”
But Dunlap also appreciates a compatible neighbor. More so than the nightly street party she can hear in her Palafox residence.
“Music, loud music, I don’t think anybody would consider it ‘customary urban noise,’” Dunlap told the city planning board. “So, we’ve got to have controls on it.”
Tommy El Mahdi, World of Beer’s director of operations, also spoke at the planning board meeting. He explained that sound was a slippery element, and hard to get a hold of. Sound travels and bounces and is absorbed by variables beyond control. Sometimes the party grows organically in volume.
“We have some nights when we’ve got 300, 500 people inside singing,” he said. “Yeah, you can hear them three blocks away. You can’t tell the people to stop singing.”
El Mahdi urged the board not to get too specific with its sound regulations. It would be, he explained, an uphill expedition.
“There is no way you can even measure this, you can’t,” he said, relaying WOB’s similar experiences in other locales. “We have been in court six times.”
ELUSIVE VISION IN THE MIND’S EYE On a recent Friday morning, Dunlap and El Mahdi sat underneath the bright green and white umbrellas in front of The Leisure Club. The two Palafox players basked in the morning sun, enjoying the dropping temperatures flirting with fall.
Inside TLC, it’s sleek and sharp and modern. Hipsters in tight pants lounge with their Apple laptops as baristas behind the counter fuss over coffee at the drip bar.
At a table near the door, Councilman Spencer sips his morning cup and surmises about downtown. In addition to being on the city council, CRA and DIB, he is also an architect who lives and works in the city’s core.
“Physically, I envision a more vertical landscape,” Spencer said, looking out the window. “Our downtown suffers from the illusion of having greater density than it does because we have a disproportionate inventory of one and two-story buildings defining our downtown streetscape.”
Spencer sees downtown growing vertically—“it’s called build up, not out”—and refers to the notion as “the responsible design of growth.”
He also envisions a diversification of downtown. He’d like to see more well paying jobs flow into the area, and a better stock of affordable housing to accommodate younger residents and service-level workers.
“We have to make that happen,” Spencer said. “We have that responsibility to retool the machine.”
By some measure the retooling is underway. There’s a near tangible excitement up and down South Palafox. It’s apparent when roaming bands of tourists snap photos of historic buildings for no reason at all, or a Segway tour hums down the street.
As the sun dropped behind the streetscape and the afternoon gave way to Friday night, patrons lined up for a table at the Tin Cow. On the stage at the front of the restaurant, musician Phil Proctor set up his gear and tuned his guitar.
Proctor’s from Mobile, Ala. He’s noticed the uptick in Pensacola’s downtown.
“My impression is a real good thing is going on,” Proctor said, motioning out the window toward the flow of foot traffic on Palafox’s sidewalks. “I was telling my wife, there seems to be a lot going on over here.”
After months of exploration on the mayor’s urban advisory committee, Hooper is still wrapping his head around what the future of Pensacola’s city core might look like, and how it might arrive at such a place. He’s pretty sure it’ll be a many-step journey and, after avoiding the adjective all afternoon, finally leans on the p-word.
“Since day one I’ve been thinking of how to describe the Pensacola I envision in my mind’s eye,” Hooper said, explaining that he can’t quite pin down the vision. “But that’s really the beauty of it—the potential.”