Great cities don’t happen by accident. Great cities take planning, care, and passion; blood, sweat, and tears. They happen when the people who love a city — neighbors, architects, business leaders, politicians, and yes, developers — come together and make it great.
Great cities are defined not by what they have in common with other cities, but by that which makes them unique.
That’s why Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward’s suggestion that we eliminate the city’s architectural review board is such an ill-conceived and laughable idea — except no one is laughing.
Take New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s not the Hurricanes or Hand Grenade cocktails that make the Quarter special. It’s the architecture; the centuries-old buildings; the culture and history that live in every brick and iron balcony. The Vieux Carre hasn’t survived by accident, or because developers wanted it that way. It’s survived because residents and preservationists banded together nearly a century ago and fought to protect something special. Without those efforts, New Orleans would not be the world-class destination it is today.
The same is true of Charleston, S.C., where stately antebellum houses line the waterfront along The Battery. Why haven’t developers torn down those old houses and replaced them with modern edifices, you ask? Why, it’s because that city has had a Board of Architectural Review in place since 1931.
Hayward is upset with Pensacola’s ARB because they dared to suggest that Mobile developer Dean Parker make a few minor changes to his 23-unit townhome development. Some residents have said that the townhomes — which would replace the single historic estate that occupied the site until it was demolished last year — aren’t compatible with the neighborhood at all. But the beleaguered ARB — a volunteer board of architects, designers, and other professionals — didn’t dare go that far, instead asking Parker to simply tweak the project’s facade and garage doors. Instead of acting like an adult, Parker resorted to bullying the board of volunteer experts, calling them “unprofessional.”
The nerve. It was enough, though, to rile up Hayward, who told the Pensacola News Journal that the ARB had “overreached in its authority” and “become an unnecessary hurdle to development.”
“I would entertain getting rid of some these boards,” Hayward said.
Well, Mayor, some of us would entertain getting rid of you.
After more than six years as Pensacola’s mayor, Hayward still hasn’t figured out what makes the city special. It isn’t the tacky- vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, or haphazard architecture. It certainly isn’t the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots and drab concrete boxes and haphazard stucco townhomes.
It’s the Spanish-named streets and the hundred-year-old houses. It’s the historic landmarks, the battles that were fought, the flags which came and went. It’s the brick buildings on Palafox Street that have been the city’s heart and soul through good times and bad. It’s the 458 years of history and culture.
Hayward can’t continue to tout Pensacola as America’s First Settlement while advocating for developers that want to demolish our historic structures to make a quick buck.
If we do as Hayward suggests — abolish the ARB, lower the bar, and open the door to unchecked, unfettered development — we’ll be trading our city’s soul for short-term profit. We’ll watch as beautiful old houses and commercial buildings fall, to be replaced by things that are generic, trendy, and un-special. We’ve already lost hundreds of historic homes and landmarks due to the short-term profit of greedy developers.
And it won’t stop with already-decimated neighborhoods like The Tanyard and Belmont-Devilliers. If we dismantle our city’s established historic preservation laws, how long until the wave of unchecked development rides into North Hill, or Old East Hill, or Seville? How long until our neighborhoods are defined not by their historic homes and businesses but by dollar stores, metal warehouses, and oil change outposts?
If Hayward has his way, we forfeit not just our potential, but our birthright. We are not an average city; we never have been. We are America’s first city, settled in 1559, a rich melting pot of Spanish, French, British, and American culture and heritage woven into the very fabric of this community.
During his first campaign for office, Hayward liked to talk about how he wanted Pensacola to be more than “a rest stop off I-10.” Ironically, if we don’t step up now to protect our neighborhoods from Hayward’s bad judgment, that’s exactly what we’ll become.
Here’s the good news — we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Other cities have already shown us the way. We suggest Hayward follow the example of former Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston or Mayor Knox White of Greenville, S.C. Both mayors have proven how advocating for historic preservation can help attract new businesses, encourage tourism growth, and build successful cities. There’s a reason their cities consistently make the lists of the best places to live and do business in America.
Historic preservation is about creating an authentic, irreplaceable place where people naturally want to be. New development should be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Pensacola.
That means having effective laws and regulations, but also ensuring there are professional architectural review processes in place. These regulations aren’t meant to impede development, they’re in place to help ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual out-of-state developer.
“We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston once said.
Pensacola deserves a mayor who has the same vision and leadership; a mayor whose commitment to his city’s long-term prosperity outweighs his support of short-term profits for development interests.
So, Mayor Hayward, we only ask you to do what you were elected to do: lead. Prove to all Pensacolians just how committed you are to this city and our history. Keep the bulldozers out.