Council chooses conference center for Maritime Park against mayor's recommendation
The Pensacola City Council rejected the mayor’s recommendation to develop an “18-hour district” of commerce, retail and high density residential in the remaining two Community Maritime Park lots in favor of the more infrastructure-heavy design that includes a “lynchpin” parking garage and conference center.
In an almost four-hour special meeting Wednesday night, the choice between three major proposals for the prominent downtown space was whittled down to two frontrunners: the mayor’s choice of Inspired Communities, and the council’s choice of Carson Lovell. The third proposal, a less developed plan by Caldwell Associates that promised to work with what the city wanted, was ranked third by both the mayor and the council.
Ultimately, the council rejected the mayor’s ranking and drafted its own, led by council members Ann Hill, Jennifer Brahier, Sherri Myers and Casey Jones, who voted for the alternative ranking.
Carson Lovell associate Greg Darden outlined a vision of a municipal 1,000-vehicle parking garage, an 80-unit workforce housing project, an entertainment establishment including activities like an arcade and indoor sports, and a 65,000-square-foot convention space.
He said in initial, informal meetings with stakeholders and leaders that a common complaint was the community’s lack of a place to host large events like banquets, which the convention center would address.
“Are you looking for the biggest check in the city’s pocket? If you are, we are not your people. … If you’re looking for the highest and best use a public property, a project that could serve as a catalyst not just to new businesses but the existing businesses downtown, then we’re your folks,” Darden said.
Wednesday’s meeting did not delve into specifics of the plans but was an initial vote that paves the way for Mayor Grover Robinson to enter negotiations with the selected company and begin workshopping the finer details of the design.
For example, Inspired Communities’ design originally included a 21-story high-rise residential building, but Robinson said Wednesday that wouldn’t be developed as presented because it deviated too far from the current six-story zoning limit in that area.
Inspired Communities’ presentation had focused heavily on residential build-out and being the “quarterback” of Maritime Park. The developer already has been awarded lots 3, 6, 8 and 9 on the property and used that as a selling point to be able to create a cohesive overall project.
Inspired Communities head of design and construction Bailey Pope said their design is flexible but as presented would include 534 residential units, a grocery and drug store, retail and a large 115,000-square-foot office space. The latter, when combined with the residential component spanning a range of income levels, would make the area an “18-hour district” as a hub of activity throughout the day and night.
“We like to address the full array of housing options so if you go from affordable apartments to luxury condos, you create an economically diverse community and bring everyone together in a very active setting,” he said.
The housing component was a major attraction for council member Jared Moore, who said the city’s housing shortage is a “crippling point” to the vibrancy.
“I think we’re in an urgent place and so for me that residential density that Inspired’s proposal imagines, I think that is imperative for this community to have an opportunity to create that kind of residential density,” he said.
A referendum in 2006 called for improving the damaged soil on the former treatment plant and rebuilding it for public use including building the stadium, surrounded by a promenade with parcels on the site to be developed in the future with private money.
In 2019, Studer Properties commissioned urban planning experts to create the West Main Master Plan, and the city council made the requirements of the plan enforceable under the city’s land development code later that year.
Studer Properties held lease options — which is a monthly fee paid to give the holder exclusive rights to negotiate undeveloped parcels with the city — on seven of the remaining lots that last year were signed over to three development groups — Silver Hills, Valencia Hotel Group and Inspired Communities of Florida LLC.
Silver Hills held the key lease option for parcels 4 and 5 but after tense negotiations, the developer walked away in March, which opened the door for the city to advertise the parcels being discussed in Wednesday night’s meeting.
In moving forward with negotiations with Carson Lovell, the city will hold yet-to-be-scheduled workshops to outline changes and priorities in their design.
For example, council member Jones said he’d like to see more density than the company’s 80-unit proposal, and Myers talked about needing to find ways to finance the parking garage and conference center to keep them public.
Emma Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com or 850-480-6979.