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A planned mixed-use apartment development in downtown Pensacola may not move forward after a city review board only partially approved the developers’ request to demolish several historic buildings.

200 Garden West — a consortium of Pensacola developers Jim Reeves, Ed Carson, Quint Studer, and Adrian Lovell — had asked the city’s Architectural Review Board for approval to demolish the historic Spring Street USO and the former Pensacola Vocational School building, long used as the headquarters of the Escambia County School District. Both buildings were erected during World War II.

The former Vernon McDaniel building on Garden Street. The building was originally constructed as the Pensacola Vocational School in 1941. (University of West Florida/Special to The Pulse)

The board approved demolition of much of the historic USO building, but required developers to preserve the building’s distinctive arched facade. The board also approved demolition of an outbuilding associated with the school building, but denied the developers’ request to demolish the school building itself. A brick-and-tile facade on Garden Street from an even older school building should also be saved, the board said.

The board’s decision was a variation on one of three options presented by the development team: one which included demolition of both buildings, one which proposed the demolition of just the USO building, and one which preserved both buildings. But despite presenting those options, Carson said Friday that the developers never intended to move forward unless they were able to raze both of the historic buildings.

“Those 3 demo options were really not options for us,” Carson said. “They were more to illustrate a massing design if the buildings are left. We never intended to
 actually go forward with them. The highest and best use was based on us demolishing everything.”

A conceptual plan of a five-story mixed-use development at the site of the former USO and school board buildings at Spring and Garden streets in downtown Pensacola. (200 Garden West/Special to The Pulse)

Buildings within a protected historic district

Complicating matters for the developers is the buildings’ location within the Palafox Historic Business District, one of the city’s five protected review districts. Developers had thought that the buildings were instead located in the Governmental Center District, which is less restrictive regarding demolition of historic buildings.

City staff discovered this week that the boundaries for the Palafox Historic Business District were depicted incorrectly on the city’s digital Geographic Information System, or GIS, map. The online map previously depicted the project site as outside the district’s boundaries, but has since been corrected.

The online maps include a disclaimer warning users not to rely on the GIS system as a depiction of district boundaries, which are specifically detailed in the city’s Code of Ordinances.

“This map was prepared by the GIS section of the City of Pensacola and is provided for information purposes only and is not to be used for development of construction plans or any type of engineering services based on information depicted herein,” the warning reads in part.

The distinctive arched facade of the historic Spring Street USO building. (University of West Florida/Special to The Pulse)

“We’ve been working all along under that assumption that this property was within the GCD,” said developer Ed Carson. “This week, city staff said that we’re in an overlap of two districts. That overlap now means that site is worth less now that it’s in the Palafox Historic Business District.”

In many cities — including New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston — the most valuable properties are located within protected historic districts.

“I don’t know why it would make a difference what district it’s in for property value,” said Ross Pristera, a historic preservationist with the University of West Florida. “I mean, you can just look at how successful Palafox and that district has become. It hasn’t been a hindrance to development.”

This brick-and-tile wall is all that remains of the original Hallmark School on West Garden Street. (University of West Florida/Special to The Pulse)

Project may not move forward

Faced with the news that they may not be able to raze the two historic buildings on the site, Reeves and Carson said Friday that it’s possible the project may not move forward.

“This property is just in the wrong damn place for development,” Reeves said. “If we aren’t able to demo we’re just going to pass on the whole deal. We haven’t had a meeting since the ARB meeting yesterday. But for my part, if we aren’t able to demo then this ain’t happening.”

Carson was more optimistic about the project’s future.

“Well, we have to run the financial models to see if we can make this work,” Carson said. “We’re very bullish on downtown, obviously. We’re invested here. Our next step is to regroup and see if we can make it work.”

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