Pensacola, Florida
Sunday June 16th 2019

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The Demolish or Salvage Debate

By Jeremy Morrison

The brick-arched facade fronting Garden Street appears to be a gateway to another time, maybe back to the 1940s, when the old school administration building was built next door, or perhaps to the future, when its demolition could make way for a new mixed-use development that could revitalize the dormant city block.

After a couple of years wrestling with the decision, the Pensacola Architectural Review Board decided during a Dec. 5 special meeting to approve developers’ request to demolish the Escambia County School Administration Building located at 215 W. Garden Street as well as an adjoining property.

Critics of this approach charge that the city is erasing valuable architectural and cultural fingerprints of history. Proponents, meanwhile, contend that sometimes it isn’t feasible to salvage older properties and point to the increase in property tax revenue and the need for new developments downtown.

“This is real serious stuff we’re playing with,” Quint Studer, one of the developers planning the Garden Street project, told the architectural review board.

Looking to the Future
Built in 1941, the old school administration building is pretty typical of such World War II-era construction. Designed by Pensacola architectural firm Yonge and Hart, the building replaced a former public school on the site and initially served as a trade school before becoming the district’s administrative building.

For the past two years, Two Hundred Garden West Inc., a group of local developers made up of Studer, Jim Reeves, Steve Simpson, Bill Whitesell, Ed Carson and Adrian Lovell, has been working with the city to build a retail-residential project on the site. In past meetings with the ARB, the group was successful in securing permission to demolish everything but the administration building and a few lingering elements—such as the brick arch facade next door and another series of arches on Spring Street.

But, as Reeves pointed out before the group’s latest visit with the ARB, the Garden Street project hinges on the demolition of the school building.

“We’re not going to buy the property at the price we agreed to pay if we can’t tear the building down,” Reeves explained. “If we can’t tear the building down, we want to go back to the school board and renegotiate the price or we just want to walk, one of the two.”

But the city had pushed back on the demolition request, urging the developers to figure out a way to incorporate the historic structure into their project. Or, as some people, like Pensacola District 6 City Councilwoman Ann Hill, pointed out, switch gears and build something that could more easily utilize the existing structure.

“Personally, I would like to see the building repurposed and not demolished, as we have done many times before with vacant historic properties,” Hill said. “We would not have thriving small businesses like IHMC, Ruby Slipper, Union House or Perfect Plain had we torn down those buildings.”

Hill said perhaps the site would be better suited for an office project.

“Sure, it may be too costly to convert this particular building into apartments; however, that is not the only option,” Hill said.

But the developers have not been receptive to such notions and maintained that the area needs mixed use and that incorporating the school building into their vision was a no-go.

Reeves said their economists have determined that leaving the building on the site would limit the developers to constructing a project valued at $10 million. If the former administration building is demolished, the developers would be able to construct a much larger development that would add $50 million to the tax rolls.

“The bottom line is, you don’t have to know advanced mathematics to figure out what that means in tax income to the city,” said Reeves.

While plans for the Garden Street development are only conceptual, the potential project calls for 280 rental units, 15,000 square feet of retail space and a 500-space parking structure. It has been referred to as akin in scope to Studer’s Southtowne development at the former Romana Street site of the Pensacola News Journal.

In addition to the projected tax revenue, such a project will generate for the city—estimated by the developers to be around $20 million over 20 years—proponents also say that such a development would help steer downtown revitalization from the core of the district westward. They couple their vision to Studer’s current renovation of the  former SunTrust building across Garden Street and assert such efforts would help energize that sector of downtown.

“This will open up that west side like you won’t believe, all the way to DeVilliers Street, I believe,” Reeves said. “If you can get a really successful project in that direction, I’m telling you, the money will follow.”

Some ARB members, as well as critics of the demolition request, had expressed concerns that the school administration building was a historically valuable structure that sits in the Palafox Historic Business District.

But the developers portrayed the building as one built on the cheap at a time when supplies were scarce and as a structure, now fraught with structural and design hurdles, that has sat on the market for a decade.

“The building has no history whatsoever,” Reeves said, noting that he founded the Pensacola Historic Preservation Board and has fought to keep other local properties, such as the long-demolished San Carlos Hotel, from being torn down. “I have a long, long, long history of preserving historic places, but this makes no sense. It just ruins the project because it’s right in the center of it, you know?”

Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas spoke in favor of the demolition and told the board the school district could use the $3 million from the building’s sale. Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson also supported the project.

The board ended up voting 7-1 to approve the building’s demolition, paving the way for the developers to purchase the property and move forward. The group will have to come back to the ARB with final design plans before actually demolishing the structure, however.

Public Shut Out
In an interesting quirk of the process, Pensacola’s Architectural Review Board did not allow for public comment during its Dec. 5 meeting. Realizing this after the fact, Mayor Robinson—who made openness and transparency a cornerstone of his recent mayoral campaign—issued a release following the meeting indicating that the board would reconvene to allow the public to weigh in.

However, a day later, that was no longer on the schedule.

“While I have asked for that and that’s what I would like to have seen, that’s not what’s going to happen,” Robinson said.

According to the city charter, each municipal board has independent authority to call for public comment or not. And because such advisory boards fall under the city council and not the mayor, Robinson has no power to demand it meet again.

Robinson said Carter Quina, the ARB chairman, had declined to reconvene. And that was that.

“He has the ability to set that, and the chair decided he didn’t want to do it,” the mayor said. “That’s where we are.”

Robinson said that he now intends to approach the city council in regards to rewriting the rules governing municipal boards, making it to where public comment is mandated.

“If that’s going to be the way things are,” he said, “I need to reset the rules on how those committees operate, and that’s what I plan on taking to council next Thursday.”