Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Future of Downtown Parking

By Rick Outzen

The City of Pensacola is working on a parking solution for downtown. While some might question the need, several parking lots have or will be taken away in the near future as development continues.

The new downtown YMCA is being built on the PNJ parking lot behind Seville Quarter. The University of West Florida’s plans to better connect and promote the city’s historic district will eliminate the parking lots behind the T.T. Wentworth Museum.  The expansion of Hixardt Technologies will eliminate a large parking lot on Government Street across from the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building, and we still aren’t sure how the renovations of the Brent and Blount buildings will impact the parking on Baylen Street.

Fortunately, Mayor Ashton Hayward has taken steps to plan for the future. Last month, the mayor wrote in a viewpoint published in the daily newspaper that finding parking solutions were among his 2016 goals.

He wrote, “We will decide whether or not a new parking garage is needed downtown and, if so, where it should be located and how it can be financed.”

Last week, the mayor called into “Pensacola Speaks” to praise Quint and Rishy Studer for their investments in his city.  He also talked about downtown parking,

“I told Quint today about Joe Riley, who probably will go down in history as one of the greatest mayors, if not the greatest mayor in the history of South Carolina in Charleston,” said the mayor. “We talked to him a few months ago before he got out of office we said, ‘Joe, how did you address parking?’”

He said, “We got his team involved and then we’re working with West Florida Planning right now–so we’re being proactive, not reactive.”

In early January, Jill Lavender from West Florida Regional Planning Council presented to the Downtown Improvement Board a summary of the City-sponsored study “Parking Strategies as a Catalyst to Economic Development”. That study should be finished by June.

The apartment complex proposed for the old News Journal site on Jefferson and Romana streets has hit a snag over parking. Studer Properties CEO Andrew Rothfeder said the now-expired EDATE program or some incentive is needed to help finance the construction of a parking garage for apartment dwellers, YMCA members and other businesses in the area.

A parking space in a parking garage costs $14,000 per space. A surface space costs $2,000 per space. Rothfeder said the garage adds another level of cost to the project. In the end, the research said the high-density apartment complex with a parking garage didn’t make financial sense, because the market couldn’t support the rents that are needed.

“This is the absolute definition of when an incentive is needed to do a project,” he said. “If tons of people have looked at it and said, ‘I can’t do it without some type of incentive to fill that gap and keep the project affordable,’ it’s just not going to happen without an incentive.”

John Peacock, chairman of the Downtown Improvement Board, told Inweekly that he realizes more parking is needed for downtown to continue to grow beyond Palafox Street.

“The DIB is responsible to manage parking, not develop parking,” he said. “That’s really the city’s job.”

He talked about how other cities handle downtown parking. “If you look at a Greenville, South Carolina, for example, they have nine garages,” said Peacock. The last time I talked to them about a year ago, they had nine garages, all of them full, and there’s two more under construction.

He added, “The way they do parking downtown, all the on-street parking is free but timed, one hour, two hour, etc. If you want to park longer than that, you go in the garage, and you pay. “

He said the West Florida Regional Council’s study would look at parking from an economic development standpoint.

“I think largely because of the hotel coming in downtown, where are we going to park those people and so many other things,” said Peacock. “We’re losing a parking lot on Government Street because of the Hixardt deal.  The UWF Historic Trust is taking away parking lots for its projects.

He said downtown has several surface lots where parking garages could be built.

“Clearly we need some additional parking and could streamline that at little bit,” said the DIB chairman. “There’re existing lots that probably can be turned into parking structures, but we can’t do that. The city’s got to do that.”

He added, “Certainly we need to make a decision as a community to which direction we want to go. I’m hopeful in June when a planning council comes back with their recommendation they’re going to say this is the direction to go.”

Councilman Brian Spencer said he also believes the city needs for the future, and more density in the downtown area is critical.

“Here’s the fact. The cost of sprawl, it’s an unbearable cost,” said Spencer. “For the city, it actually is more expensive for us to service residences that are in our lower density neighborhoods. It’s smart thinking to do what we can do to advance the migration of people, particularly residences, into the higher-density housing solutions. “

He said, “I think it’s a smart investment for us to look at public funding that can support and, in some way, serve as the funding source, whether it be to a partnership. I don’t know what percentage that addresses the structured parking.”

The councilman recognized that parking is a barrier to how downtown expands. He called the business owners that have made Palafox Street a destination for locals and visitors “early investors.”

“We owe it to them to do what we can to remove some of the barriers to developers who may otherwise invest less risky vertical improvements in other cities and communities,” he said. “We need to do that; we’ve got to at least make ourselves appear to be on level playing field with some of the other first- and second-tier cities.”

Spencer said, “That’s one of my goals. I’ll be very supportive of any sort of action that we as a governing body can take.”

Mayor Hayward is ready to see how to take downtown development to the next level.

“We’ve had so much growth in five years, and so all of us get excited about being on Bayfront Parkway and coming into the downtown core,” said the mayor. “The culture’s shifting in a very positive way, but there’s so much growth going on downtown.”