Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday June 19th 2019

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Preserving Historic Neighborhoods

By Jeremy Morrison

Pensacola appears poised to provide protections for its historic neighborhoods, and Councilwoman Ann Hill couldn’t be more pleased.

“I live in the CRA,” Hill told her fellow council members. “I’m so thrilled, I feel like I can sleep again thinking that, you know, the neighborhood is going to look as good or better the next time I wake up.”

On May 16, the city council gave its initial blessing to an ordinance establishing the Community Redevelopment Area Urban Design Overlay District. The district encompasses a collection of neighborhoods near the city’s downtown core and aims to ensure that neighborhoods maintain their character through the implementation of design standards.

The city’s approval of this CRA overlay district—which requires a final vote in June—has been a long time coming. The process has taken more than a year and consisted of 20 public meetings.

But Councilwoman Hill has been engaged in this discussion for much longer. She recalls a 2003 CRA workshop with residents of the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, during which the bones of the overlay district were beginning to take shape.

Belmont-DeVilliers, where Hill has lived since the early ‘90s, is a historically African-American neighborhood and home to streets lined with shotgun houses, narrow structures with rooms arranged one behind the other and fronted by wide porches.

“Anyone who has spent time in Belmont-DeVilliers is aware of the shotgun-style homes that have perfectly met workforce housing needs for decades,” Hill stated in an email following the council’s approval of the overlay district.

She explained how the 2003 workshop geared toward developing a Neighborhood Land Use Plan was needed to ensure the preservation of the neighborhood’s “diverse culture while eradicating the pockets of blight in the neighborhood.”

“It was clear the attendees wanted these shotguns restored or renovated,” she said, “with more affordable and owner-occupied infill housing, along with the development of thriving small businesses.”

According to Hill, the main takeaway from that neighborhood workshop was, “Don’t push out people.” The concepts that came out of that workshop—essentially that new construction should reflect the neighborhood’s character—are now years later being enshrined in the new overlay district.

“The CRA Urban Design Overlay District ordinance goes a long way to establish or at least encourage these design guidelines,” Hill noted.

Control Over It

Pensacola’s new CRA overlay district encompasses neighborhoods west of
Ninth Avenue near downtown that do not currently have protections. It includes neighborhoods like North Hill, the Tanyards and Old East Hill. It does not, notably, cover the whole of East Hill, leaving the neighborhood north of Cervantes unaffected.

The overlay district ordinance governs various architectural aspects of construction. It dictates building height and orientation as well as building materials. It also addresses things like parking, lighting and landscape. The ordinance applies to new construction, including demolitions and rebuilds.

Marina Khoury, an urban planner with Miami-based DPZ, who has worked with the city to develop this new district, described the new protections as “light.” She said, because of this, the ordinance may need to be revisited and strengthened at some future date.

“The one thing I will say since it is such a light touch, it does not inoculate you from bad architects and bad architecture,” Khoury told the city council.

The public’s general reaction to this new district was mostly positive at the council meeting. Residents from various neighborhoods included in the district expressed hope that the ordinance would help preserve the historic and cultural character of their neighborhoods.

“As I walk through my neighborhood every day, I see houses that don’t meet the requirement, that don’t fit the character,” said Zachary Lane, who lives on Brainard Street.

Marilyn Wiggins, president of the Tanyard Neighborhood Association, told the council that she was hopeful the new district would ease problems like the overcrowding of houses and insufficient parking that she feels have been brought on by new development.

“I’m hoping some of the things are going to benefit the whole neighborhood,” Wiggins said.

But the reaction to this overlay district effort has not been unanimously positive. Developers, for example, are fearful that the new design standards will be overly limiting and constrict their projects.

Local developer Fred Gunther told the council that while “a lot of great changes” had been made to the proposed ordinance, he still had reservations about various aspects of it. For instance, he was concerned with the lack of a variance process and the possibility of parking restrictions derailing or complicating projects.

Gunther requested that council consider holding off on implementing the ordinance, effectively grandfathering in projects currently in the hopper.

“If you do pass it, I would ask that you delay implementation,” he said. “Designs are being done across the city by architects and engineers, and it would be nice to have time to finish those designs and get them permitted rather than having to scrap them or spend significantly more money and time.”

The City Council was also split in their initial approval of the overlay district ordinance. Council President Andy Terhaar and Councilman P.C. Wu voted against the measure.

But a majority of city council looked like they’re ready to give their final approval to the measure come June. The ordinance’s sponsor, Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn, said the city needed the new protections to ensure neighborhoods maintained their integrity.

“If you drive around the neighborhoods, you will see the character of the neighborhoods changing,” she said. “And you have no control over it.”

The East Hill Question

It has become commonplace recently for houses in certain neighborhoods to be demolished and replaced with more modern residences, often with no regard to fitting in with the existing landscape. One neighborhood in which this practice has proliferated is East Hill.

“I’m seeing this all over, where there are vacant lots in East Hill,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers.

Myers used to live in East Hill, next door to an old shotgun with a “big beautiful oak tree” in the yard. After the councilwoman moved from the neighborhood, the shotgun was demolished, and the tree cut down.

“They built an ultra-modern looking building that looks nothing like the character of our street and our neighborhood there,” Myers said.

The city’s proposed overlay district does not include East Hill. This is because, Councilwoman Hill explained, residents of the neighborhood expressed a desire to be left out. As a result, the city’s planning board excluded East Hill before delivering an ordinance to the city council. Hill added that the ordinance can always be revised in the future to include neighborhoods like East Hill if residents push for such an addition.

She said, “Should those residents have a change of mind and want to participate.”

Council members will again address the overlay issue at their June meeting, at which time they will need to approve the ordinance establishing the district for a second time before it makes it on the books.