Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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Urban Planning for Utopia

By Jeremy Morrison

The version of reality recently unveiled by a team of urban planners projects a very different cityscape for downtown Pensacola’s western flank. Whereas the area west of South Palafox currently consists of a baseball park, civic buildings and “a lot of missing teeth,” the planners’ maps-of-potentials featured a mixed-use, retail-residential mecca with green spaces creating walkable areas and kayakers lounging in the bay just off the white sand beaches of Bruce Beach.

Jeff Speck, a visiting planner associated with the new urbanism movement, admired the dreamland his team was forecasting for the area, focusing in on Bruce Beach, sketched out in renderings fronted by a hotel.

“Having an in-town, white-sand beach right next to a four-star hotel would take you to the next level,” Speck mused.

Speck and Marina Khoury, a planner with the Miami-based DPZ firm, were in town for a week to present their teams’ visions for the still-relatively-sleepy sector of downtown.

They were invited to town by local businessman, philanthropist and developer Quint Studer, along with his wife Rishy Studer, after securing an 18-month, $270,000 lease-option last year from the city of Pensacola, along with the go-ahead to master plan for a considerable patch of downtown.

The master planning process focused on the Studer-owned 19-acre piece of property on Main Street, the former site of the Emerald Coast Utility Authority’s wastewater treatment facility, as well as the seven remaining municipally-owned parcels at the Community Maritime Park across the street, where Studer’s minor league Blue Wahoos play ball, and a collection of both available and occupied properties nearby. The resulting version of reality—a buzzing, vibrant, urban hub—will require the commitment of development funds as well as the will to rethink city codes that govern such developments.

While certain aspects of this privately-funded master planning and exercise-in-urban-waterfront-visioning process seem somehow charmed, the rainbow was real.

“This was not Photoshopped; this actually happened,” Speck laughed during the team’s opening presentation as he flashed a slide on the screen showing a rainbow arching over the swath of downtown Pensacola that he’s been busy reimagining.

Underneath the rainbow lay real estate ripe with potential. But potential for what? The answer, apparently, is mixed-use residential-retail with a particular focus on upping downtown’s stock of housing options.

“Everything gets better when you have more residential in your downtown,” Speck said, describing the residential element as a “mandate” for the planning project.

Speck and Khoury presented several versions of their plans, but the themes were fairly consistent. On Studer’s 19-acres, as well as the Maritime Park parcels and various other spaces in the area—such as the parking lot at city hall and a nearby empty lot—there was ground-level parking and retail beneath residential.

As part of this master planning process, a market study was conducted to determine what the area could support. The study pointed to the need for more residential units, nearly 1,300 of them, as well as an additional 200,000 square feet of retail space. The residential units would accommodate various pricing levels but would include units affordable to buyers in the $40,000 income level range.

“We believe housing is the major thrust and what should be built at these sites,” said Peter Bazeli, an analyst with Weitzman Associates, LLC.

Bazeli explained that the market study revealed a 1.4 percent vacancy rate in the downtown housing market.

“We don’t see that anywhere,” he said. “It’s almost 100 percent occupied.”

Brazeli said he envisioned the developments along Main Street would progress over a 15-year period. In addition to residential, the retail would feature businesses such as restaurants and boutiques but also establishments that would be needed by the new residents, such as a grocery store and childcare providers.

On Studer’s 19-acres, the planners presented lines of four- to five-story apartment buildings, described aesthetically as “row houses,” with green, walkable spaces in between. Parking is located beneath, providing the required elevation for the flood-prone site. Near the apartments sit a larger residential complex a la Southtowne, a Studer development across downtown, as well as a hotel.

Across Main Street at Maritime Park, there is another Southtown-like complex, as well as more mixed-use developments.

“Almost everything you’re looking at here is multi-use, residential-over-retail,” Speck said, displaying renderings depicting a developed Maritime Park.

In addition to residential and retail, the planners also placed hotels at Maritime Park. The planners said they had heard from multiple hoteliers that were interested in developing a property at the park.

“If you dropped in, you probably saw us talking to them,” Speck said during another presentation in the lobby of the Studer Community Institute, motioning over to the glass-walled room where his team of planners had been busy working.

The most ambitious element of the plans presented by Speck and his team came in the form of a pair of luxury hotels, built high and overlooking the baseball field.

“It’s nice to have something that creates a skyline, an oh-my-God-moment,” Speck said. “You know, something spectacular.”

The planner noted that such luxury units might not find buyers in Pensacola currently, but one day, they would be in demand.

“Once this area has its nightlife, its cachet, its there-there …” Speck speculated.

While the Studers are footing the bill for this master planning process, own the 19-acres and have a vested interest in what happens at Maritime Park, Speck said that he expected much of the development spurred by these plans to be done by other parties.

“Studer Properties isn’t planning on just developing this whole thing,” Speck said, describing any future development efforts as “very shared and very much mice and not dinosaurs doing the work.”

Andrew Rothfeder, president of Studer Properties, reiterated this point, describing the master planning process and associated market research as a “playbook” for the city to use in guiding future development. He stressed that the plans would not be realized by the Studers alone but were meant to be acted upon collectively.

“We want the city to have the playbook,” Rothfeder said. “And thank God for Quint and Rishy Studer because it is not about them; it’s about community.”

Rothfeder said that breathing life into such ambitious plans will be a group effort and that the version of reality the plans represent will require buy-in from the community and city officials, as well as private developers.

“This isn’t a foregone conclusion,” Rothfeder said. “There’s so much that has to happen between here and there.”