The developer who wants to build townhomes on the former site of the historic John Sunday House in Pensacola will appeal directly to the city council after a city review board placed conditions on its approval of his plans.
First announced in January, Mobile, Ala.-based developer Dean Parker plans to build a 23-unit townhome development called Girard Place on the site, located at 302 West Romana Street just west of Pensacola’s downtown core. Because the parcel is located within one of the city’s special review districts, Parker’s plans must be approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board.
This isn’t the first time that a developer has clashed with the ARB over the future of this particular parcel. Until last summer, the property was home to the 115-year-old house named for John Sunday, one of the most prominent African-American figures in Pensacola’s history. Despite efforts from preservationists, the house was demolished last July through the efforts of Pensacola attorney Charles Liberis, who purchased the home the same month for $650,000. When the ARB sought to delay the demolition in hopes of facilitating preservation efforts, Liberis successfully sought a court order to bypass the board and go ahead with demolition.
Six months later, Liberis sold the property to Parker for $1.7 million.
Objections center on street-facing garages
Parker initially submitted the Girard Place plans to the ARB in February, but architects Dean Dalrymple and Scott Sallis withdrew the application after board members objected to various aspects of the project. Several board members took issue with the project’s planned street-facing garages and driveways, which would result in about 15 new curb cuts along Romana, Reus, and Hilary Streets. Those driveways would eliminate some on-street parking and could result in sidewalks being blocked by vehicles.
The project was resubmitted for the board’s March 16 meeting with street-facing garages still included, but this time, Parker was in attendance to personally defend the project.
“I was blessed to spend a year serving our country as chairman of a national presidential campaign,” Parker said, referring to his time as the national finance chairman for Dr. Ben Carson’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. “When that ended I came back and I was sitting down with my partner — she wasn’t my partner at the time, she was just my friend from fourth grade — and she tells me about the need, that the average successful executive can’t afford to live downtown.”
Despite not yet having obtained the required approvals for the project, Parker said he’s already presold 70% of the development’s Phase I, which includes the units fronting on Romana and Reus Streets. The units are priced between $499,000 and $699,000.
“I have people from Ohio, Pittsburgh calling asking, ‘When are you going to start construction, we’re ready to get started,'” Parker said.
“Not compatible with the built environment”
Pensacola resident Christian Wagley, who helms a consulting firm called Sustainable Town Concepts, spoke against the project at both the February and March meetings.
“I still feel very strongly that what’s presented before us today is not compatible with the built environment of the Governmental Center District,” said Wagley at the March meeting. “It’s widely acknowledged, it’s been stated already today, that it’s preferential to put parking to the side or to the rear of structures in urban areas.”
Wagley pointed to a number of other pending townhome developments in and around downtown Pensacola, including The Warfield in the Seville neighborhood and the Junction at West Hill in Belmont-Devilliers, both of which place resident parking behind the buildings.
During the meeting, Parker described the proposed townhomes as “a modern version of a D.C. or New York brownstone,” despite the fact that neither the rowhouses commonly found in Washington, D.C. nor the brownstones of New York City typically, if ever, feature street-facing garages.
“Just stop using the word blighted, please.”
Parker and his architects repeatedly referred to the area around the property — located just three blocks west of Palafox Street — as “blighted,” but board member Carter Quina wasn’t having it.
“I really take exception to these continuous uses of the word blighted,” Quina said. “My office happens to be half a block away. Ever’man is successful. The site just south of you is about to have a new [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] office building, spending much more money than you are. Just stop using the word blighted, please.”
Responding to Quina, Parker singled out a house on de Villiers Street, calling it “an eyesore.”
“That’s the house where Mr. Patti grew up,” Quina said, referring to the longtime owner of Pensacola’s Joe Patti Seafood Company, and the house from which the legendary seafood market first operated.
Parker urged ARB members to support the project despite their reservations.
“I understand that this maybe is not optimal when it comes to the academic view of perfect communities,” Parker said. “But I implore you that what we are putting in is a better option than what’s there today. I implore you that you have somebody from out-of-town that chose to invest in your city.”
“If you push the project back and choose not to give us an approval today, it delays things, it puts things at risk, and it further pushes this city back,” Parker added.
Plans approved with conditions
After two hours of discussion, the ARB approved Parker’s plans with several conditions: that the developer change the planned double garage doors to single garage doors; that the planned stone veneer be changed to brick; and that more doors and/or windows be added to the planned facade on Reus Street to make it less of a solid wall.
However, Parker considers the board’s decision an effective denial, and he’s now asking the City Council to essentially override the ARB and approve his plans as originally submitted.
Parker argued that due to stormwater requirements, it’s not possible to move parking to the rear of the buildings while preserving the planned pool, community building, and other amenities.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the ARB and the fact that they were not willing to work with us,” Parker said Wednesday. “We’re here to invest in Pensacola and we’re building what customers want.”
Parker noted that there’s no specific prohibition of street-facing garages within the Governmental Center District and says his attorney will show the city council several examples of other nearby buildings which have them. Indeed, the nearby Baylen Lofts — designed by architect Brian Spencer, who’s current the city council president — features street-facing garages, though that project repurposed an existing building and it wasn’t possible for parking to be placed in the rear.
Calling board members “disrespectful” and “unprofessional,” Parker said that the board needs to be replaced with people willing to work with developers.
Parker’s appeal has not yet been placed on the city council’s agenda, but it’s likely to be taken up at the council’s May meeting.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Parker’s appeal would be heard by the Pensacola City Council at their April 13 meeting.