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Wednesday November 26th 2014

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Plan B

The Beach, The Vision, The Overpass and The $25 Million Dollar Question
By Jeremy Morrison

Throughout the ebb and flow of time, the sifting sands of Pensacola Beach have been awash in perpetual change. The beach is shaped by the tide and time, and more recently the vision of man.

Over the years, the beach has been viewed as many things by many people.

When Tristan de Luna came along in 1559, the Spanish explorer could not have fathomed the water slide or bumper boats that would one day grace the sugar-white real estate. When Geronimo was held captive at Fort Pickens, the Apache had never tasted a Bushwhacker or marveled at the Spaceship House.

What would these men have thought about pastel condos and string-bikinis and parasails? What was their vision of Pensacola Beach? Would they have been able to swallow a $25 million infrastructure project tied to a bridge toll increase any easier than the beach’s current inhabitants?

If the region’s historic characters had lived in Escambia County Commissioner Kevin White’s district, chances are they’d be staunchly opposed to what has become known as “Plan B.”

“I can tell you everybody on the mainland is opposed to it, at least in my district,” said White, recounting the more than 300 e-mails he’d received on the subject. “I have not had one positive response about it at all.”

Plan B represents Pensacola Beach’s newest chapter of change, and possibly offers a portrait of its future. With these proposed changes, a new vision of the beach is being offered up.

Faced with peak-use parking and congestion issues in the beach’s core area—the intersection of Via de Luna and Fort Pickens Road—county and beach leaders have been searching for possible solutions. Three years later, the preferred plan—Plan B—features a raised roadway and focuses on transforming the area into a pedestrian-friendly destination.

“It’s all in the name of having a better beach experience,” explained Dave Pavlock, chairman of the Santa Rosa Island Authority board.

The proposed plan represents a particular vision of Pensacola Beach. Engineers were instructed to think big, to report back with, as Pavlock puts it, a “dream plan.”

“Take us up a couple of notches,” he said. “—you know, what Camelot should look like.”

In February, the Santa Rosa Island Authority gave its thumbs-up to the beach’s most recent change: an observation wheel. Rotating high above the sand, the 18-story wheel will offer sweeping views of the beach. What will that view look like in the coming years?

If that wheel is ridden with Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, he may motion out over a Pensacola Beach landscape that looks dramatically different than it does today.

“If you’re not looking to get better and expand, you are contracting,” Robinson said recently. “You can’t just sit on your laurels and do nothing. You can’t just quit growing.”

PLANS A, B AND C

The local Boy Scout troop had chosen a good night to attend the Santa Rosa Island Authority board meeting on Pensacola Beach. They sat cross-legged on the floor with their matching handkerchiefs and waited to witness the wheels of local government in motion.

The Feb. 8 meeting was a hot ticket. The seats filled up quick. Attendees spilled into the lobby and began parking at the Circle K next door. This was the night the SRIA board voted on the vision.

Plan B’s large-scale infrastructure changes and the accompanying $25 million price tag had drawn a decidedly opposed crowd to the meeting. They were there to let the Island Authority know how they felt about the proposed project.

“I can appreciate the vision you have—I have a lot of visions,” beach resident Charles Rotenberry told the board before summing up. “If it’s not broke, let’s not fix it.”

For years, Pensacola Beach has wrestled with an identity crisis, as well as summer time parking and traffic issues. After a number of studies and plans on the matter—“they’re all in a warehouse in Gulf Breeze,” noted SRIA Executive Director W. A. “Buck” Lee—a steering committee was assembled in 2009 and asked to address the concerns.

During the course of their work, the committee learned that the issues could best be addressed with changes to the main intersection near Casino Beach. With either a vehicle overpass or pedestrian walkover, the area would be transformed into a flowing foot-traffic utopia.

Both plans—Plan A and Plan B—aimed to separate people from their vehicles and encourage them to travel the beachscape on foot. Urban planners sold the steering committee on a one-beach vision and traffic experts informed them that access to available parking—not the number of spaces—was the true problem so both plans cut hundreds of parking spaces from the beach.

“Everybody on the steering committee immediately got excited about ‘new urbanism,’” said Robert Rinke, co-developer of Portofino Island Resort and member of the steering committee.

New urbanism design focuses on pedestrians, and strives for a walkable landscape. Proponents of Plan B feel that diverting the traffic over beach goers as they walk from the beach to the bay will alleviate current parking issues, ensure pedestrian safety and foster a flip-flopped, walkabout vibe that will draw the tourists back for another memorable vacation.

Plan A—panned by the steering committee and the SRIA board—consisted of a pedestrian walkover linking the parking lot at Casino Beach with the Portofino Boardwalk across Via de Luna. That plan was expected to cost slightly less, at $18 million.

The plan preferred by the steering committee raises the roadways, allowing pedestrians to flow unfettered at ground level. The $25 million plan also calls for landscaping, a pedestrian concourse and signs to alert drivers of available parking spaces.

“I wish everyone could have been part of the whole process,” Rinke told the crowd at the SRIA meeting. “We learned a lot.”

Rinke, who owns the Portofino Boardwalk, and is also a partner in Levin & Rinke Resort Realty, was joined by several other members of the steering committee in the defense of Plan B.

“What we need to do is look forward and allow for this growth,” said Julian MacQueen, steering committee member and owner of Innisfree Hotels. “That’s going to come to Pensacola Beach.

These voices, however, were alone in a sea of public opposition at the meeting.

“I would recommend Plan C—C for ‘common sense,’” said Bill Compton, who described himself as an urban planner. “Why are we spending this kind of money to address an occasional problem?”

Members of the public questioned the steering committee’s vision. Some expressed a desire to keep the beach as it is currently. Others said neither plans up for consideration addressed the real problem: finding a parking space on a busy summer weekend.

“I’ve seen so many changes it’s amazing, but what’s going on now is scary,” Michael Waters told the SRIA board members. “I think we’re so lucky to have what we have. We haven’t gone overboard, we haven’t gone nuts. I think we’re getting close to going a little nuts.”

SRIA Board member Elwyn Guernsey seemed a bit miffed at the sudden groundswell of public interest.

“Glad you’re all here,” he told the crowd. “It’s great to have your input, but where were you two years ago?”

Guernsey said that the steering committee had fulfilled its duty of recommending a direction, and now—after years of work and at a cost of around $400,000—the group’s efforts were being thwarted.

“It makes me just want to throw up,” Guernsey told his fellow board members.

While most of the SRIA board supported Plan B to varying degrees, there was one consistent voice of dissent. Tom Campanella, the SRIA’s only elected member, questioned the motives behind the proposed project and suggested it was not in the public’s interest.

“It connects a public beach to a private enterprise,” Campanella said, charging that a number of business owners on the steering committee had personal gains at stake. “So, it’s kind of like, ‘Here, we’re gonna put the fox in the hen house and see what we end up with.”’

Campanella urged the SRIA board to slow down and reassess.

“I don’t mind having egg on my face, I don’t mind backing up and saying, ‘This got out of hand,’” he said. “You better rethink what you’re asking for—there’s not gold at the end of the road. You’ve got a golden goose now.”

After several failed attempts, the SRIA board finally muscled Plan B’s passage. Board member Vernon Prather offered up the final motion, attempting to assure the SRIA had some “skin in the game” by tacking on an amendment that sought to allow the board to weigh-in again once the project got underway.

“Let’s run it up the flag pole and see who salutes,” said Pavlock, prior to the 5-1 vote.

THE BEACH OF TOMORROWLAND

If one heads away from the main public parking lot on Pensacola Beach, they will encounter miles and miles of undeveloped beachfront. The tourist-tacky scenes of an airbrushed summer quickly give way to unspoiled nature.

These undeveloped stretches of beach were not set aside voluntarily. They are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and are protected from development by law.

“Pensacola beach is kind of like a one-lane bowling alley,” said Pavlock. “You drive down and say, ‘Boy, this would be a good place for a condo or a hotel’—you can’t!”

This natural bounty stands in contrast to nearby destinations. While Panama City Beach has become a Spring Break cliché, and Destin and Gulf Shores, Ala., suffer from an impenetrable wall of condos and lack of beach access for the public, Pensacola Beach’s undeveloped dunes are considered to be one of its main draws.

“That makes for a wonderful beach,” said Rinke. “And then you have one little bitty core area.”

Because much of Pensacola Beach is off-limits to future development, attention is focused on the beach’s core intersection. Parking problems have dogged the area for years, and more recently area leaders have strived to define their vision for the beach—capitalizing on the beach’s natural attributes while accommodating growth.

Rinke feels Plan B pretty much nails it.

“Here’s what it does for the future—it makes it one beach,” he said a couple of weeks after the SRIA board approved Plan B. “People can just go back and forth.”

Rinke noted that Pensacola Beach is a unique locale due to its proximity to multiple bodies of water. He referred excitedly to the beach-to-bay experience and eco-tourism.

“This is what Pensacola needs to be,” he said.

Down the road from the beach’s core intersection, Phillip Napier has taken a different position. The Grand Marlin owner is not on board with the proposed infrastructure project.

“Let me tell you, I am not one of the old-school guys,” Napier said. “I mean, development is my business. I am pro-development on Pensacola Beach. I actually look forward to the future development of the beach.”

But Plan B doesn’t sit well with the Pensacola Beach business owner. While the cost-factor gives concerns him, Napier also has reservations about the loss of parking associated with the project.

“It’s just hard for me to get my arms around how eliminating 300 or 400 parking spaces out there is a good idea,” he said.

The SRIA is putting its faith in the steering committee and the research supporting Plan B.

“We spent three years looking at it and right now that’s what the best minds have come up with,” Pavlock said. “And maybe it’s the best way.”

COUNTY EYES VISION

Now that the Santa Rosa Island Authority has given its blessing to Plan B, the project will go before the Escambia County Commission. Prior to the SRIA’s Feb. 8 meeting, Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson said he had not yet made up his mind on the issue.

As he sat listening to the opposing positions during the SRIA meeting, there was one major factor that was giving Chairman Robertson pause. It was the same thing that was giving a lot of people pause: funding.

At an estimated $25 million dollars, Plan B isn’t cheap. The most probable source of funds for such a venture would be an increased toll. The amount it costs to get onto the beach could be increased from $1 to $2, or by higher estimates, $3 or more.

“It may not sound like a lot, $2,” Robertson said “But you’re still doubling it, and to a lot of people that’s a lot.”

Commissioner Robinson feels that the price tag is the source of most people’s opposition.

“I haven’t heard very many people criticize the idea for the idea sake,” he said. “If they’re complaining about something, usually the underlying issue is money—they don’t want to pay for it.”

The $25 million sum, and possibility of a toll hike, was also considered when the SRIA approved Plan B. The board members specified in their approval that county commissioners should explore alternative funding options.

Any alternative funding mechanism will undoubtedly involve debt. That’s not likely to play well with Commissioner White.

“I guess I can make it real simple,” White said. “I spent eight years trying to reduce the debt. I don’t want to incur it.”

Commissioner Gene Valentino is also looking like a tough sell.

“First of all, I’m against it,” Valentino said. “Not because they need it or don’t need it, but because the system stinks.”

The commissioner is no fan of the SRIA. He feels that other waterfront areas of Escambia County go wanting as a result of the attention paid to Pensacola Beach.

“I propose the complete elimination of the Santa Rosa Island Authority,” Valentino said. “It’s not just about Pensacola Beach anymore, it’s about the entirety of our waterfront interests … we need to make sure that all of our waterfront interests are addressed with a sense of fairness and balance.”

The commissioner also questioned the need for Plan B. He said county staff had been “left in the dark” and “don’t have a clue about what’s going on out there.”

“I’ve got 20 people on staff that are scratching their heads,” Valentino said.

Commissioner Valentino—as well as the rest of the county commission—will soon have an opportunity to learn what’s going on out there. The county is hosting two public meetings on the proposed project.

The first meeting will be held on March 7 at 5:30 p.m. at the county’s central office complex at 3363 W. Park Place in Pensacola. The second meeting will be on March 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Our Lady Assumption on the beach, at 920 Via de Luna on Pensacola Beach.

A week after the public meetings, county commissioners will decide whether or not to more forward with Plan B. That decision will be made March 15 during the commission’s regular meeting.

“I can expect the folks that are opposing it to make a full court press on the county commission,” said SRIA board Chairman Pavlock.

Commissioner Robinson, who represents Pensacola Beach, realizes Plan B faces a steep climb among the public, as well as some of his fellow commissioners. When he eventually rides the recently approved observation wheel, what will the Pensacola Beach of the future look like?

“Who knows, really, what’s going to happen?” Robinson said.