One of Pensacola’s five aesthetic review districts could soon be history, if Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Councilman Andy Terhaar get their way.
Hayward and Terhaar are asking city council members to abolish the Governmental Center District, which encompasses about 15 blocks on the western side of downtown Pensacola. It’s one of five districts where historic properties enjoy a degree of protection, as demolitions and new construction within the district must be approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board.
The Governmental Center District was established in 1979, as planning began to erect a series of new city, county, and state government buildings in the largely-residential Tanyard neighborhood. New developments within the district are reviewed by the ARB, which is tasked with encouraging a “coordinated architectural character” and ensuring projects are “compatible with the built environment” of the district.
Abolishing the district would create a development free-for-all on downtown’s west side, with no one reviewing projects to ensure quality and compatibility with the surrounding area. Several notable or historic buildings would also lose protections, including the former Vernon McDaniel school district building, the Spring Street USO, and a brick warehouse on Romana Street.
Hayward and Terhaar argue that since the government center’s buildings have all been completed, the district is obsolete and no longer needed.
City Council President Brian Spencer couldn’t disagree more.
“I adamantly oppose the proposed ordinance to eliminate the Governmental Center District for several reasons,” Spencer said Thursday. “This centralized area is far from being fully redeveloped and in fact, the momentum of downtown’s growth westward beyond the South Palafox corridor provides even greater support for the current review procedure that would disappear should this ordinance pass.”
Spencer’s sentiments have been echoed by the city’s Planning Board, which discussed the district in November and decided it should be renamed and expanded westward to A Street. That recommendation hasn’t yet made it to the city council.
UWF historic preservationist Ross Pristera says there’s no accurate inventory of what historic buildings and architectural styles remain in the district. Following recent debate about the district and the development of the former Sunday House property, Pristera has put together a survey team which will study the district this summer.
“The GCD has suffered significant losses of historic buildings, but what does remain are great, sometimes in rough condition, examples of architecture that showcase the development of Pensacola,” Pristera said.
Pristera said he believes the district should remain in place, noting that the majority of available land close to Palafox and the city’s other historic districts is located in the GCD.
“The district was once a thriving urban neighborhood that unfortunately was the focus of bad revitalization and urban planning efforts in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Pristera. “We can see the architecture, often described as ugly and out of place, as the monuments to the last redevelopment effort. Do we want to repeat this mistake and have a new wave of bad architecture and poor quality buildings or do we want professionals to review plans and give the public a forum to voice opinion of what gets built?”
Spencer said that without a review district in place, the city could end up with gas stations and convenience stores being developed just blocks from Palafox Street and the Community Maritime Park. He says he plans to propose keeping the district in place and renaming it the Maritime Overlay District. Spencer proposed a similar plan with Hayward’s support in 2013, but it failed to gain approval after objections from the Emerald Coast Utility Authority, which felt the plan could impact its ability to sell the 18-acre site formerly occupied by the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.
ECUA later sold the property to developer Quint Studer in 2014.
City council members are set to take up Hayward and Terhaar’s item at their meeting next Thursday, June 8. Abolishing the district would take require two city council votes to approve.
Hayward’s office declined to comment for this story, but the mayor told the Pensacola News Journal in April that he felt there needed to be fewer restrictions on downtown development.
“The last thing we need to having a process slowing down growth,” Hayward told the paper.