Try, try again: city wants public input on East Government reopening

At a March Committee of the Whole meeting, the Pensacola City Council was asked to approve a $100,000 street project that would reopen East Government Street at its Ninth Avenue terminus. The plans had been drawn; the contractor had been selected; it’s just that no one told anyone the historic Seville neighborhood that would be affected by the new traffic.

The results weren’t pretty. Dozens of angry residents showed up at the meeting to complain, and several council members, shocked at the lack of notification or neighborhood input, torpedoed the contract.

“There were some questions and concerns that, quite frankly, we didn’t do a good job of addressing last time,” said city spokesman Derek Cosson. “We dramatically underestimated how people would feel about this.”

So now the city is giving it another shot. They’ve contracted with the West Florida Regional Planning Council (WFRPC), a Pensacola-based entity that serves seven Panhandle counties (from Escambia to Bay), to hold a series of public involvement meetings on the issue and deliver a report to the city council in August.

“It’s our challenge to bring a concise story to this city, to tell them what we think is going on and what we think are viable solutions,” said Alan Gray, a regional planner in the WFRPC’s Comprehensive Planning Division, which specializes in land use regulation, disaster and hazard planning, review of large scale development, and, in this case, technical assistance to local governments.

“I love solutions,” said Gray. “I hate just focusing on a problem.”

As part of WFRPC’s $18,100 contract with the city, Gray is bringing noted urban planner Dan Burden to host the first meeting, being held today from 2:30 to 5:30 in City Hall’s Hagler-Mason conference room. Burden had a sixteen-year career as the nation’s first statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator (for the Florida Department of Transportation) before starting a nonprofit called Walkable Communities in 1996. He has since been named one of the “six most important civic innovators in the world” by TIME magazine and now serves as executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.

“We’re really lucky to get a guy like that down here,” said Gray. “I think he’s going to be a real asset for us at the beginning of this process, with the experience of 3,500 communities that he’s helped in the past thirty years.”

Part of the plan this time around is to change the terminology. Instead of just “reopening Government Street,” which has a connotation of more automobile traffic and a less pedestrian-friendly environment, the goal is being described as “restoring the grid” through a “complete streets” philosophy.

A 1964 aerial photo overlay of the terminus

Before Bayfront Parkway was constructed in 1980, the street grid provided consistent connectivity for transit throughout downtown — without the dead ends that frustrate many drivers today.

“You couldn’t drive somewhere and have to turn around,” he said. “We expressed vehicles through downtown, but we lost a lot of the connectivity.”

Gray has at his disposal a whole host of historic maps and aerial photos which document the decision to close Government Street, including a 1971 master plan that would have isolated the historic district from automobiles, with an outlandish bridge structure carrying traffic over the bay and the port, reconnecting with Main Street at Palafox. Obviously, this plan never reached fruition.

Complete streets is a phrase that has been mentioned in other recent city initiatives, like the changes to the Land Development Code and the creation of a Maritime Redevelopment District. Many of the complete streets concepts are even present in the CRA’s master plan and its 2010 update, which proposed a roundabout at Ninth and Bayfront that would have reopened Government Street, along with an improved road diet that would have devoted more of the Government Street right-of-way to landscaped sidewalks, which also helps to calm traffic.

“Whether it’s converting Spring and Baylen back to two-way, or whatever, the mayor really wants to implement this complete streets philosophy,” said Cosson.

While these WFRPC-hosted meetings should quell concerns over public input, those weren’t the only objections expressed by residents, some of whom were opposed to reopening Government Street in any form. Gray said these meetings will give others a chance to make their voices heard.

“There’s not just residents on this street,” said Gray. “There’s commercial interests here. There’s offices. I don’t think I’m going to have any lack of diversity in the groups that come to these meetings.”

Several speakers at the March meeting were also unhappy about the “right in, right out” design proposed by the city in March, which City Administrator Bill Reynolds had deemed as the only viable plan available. (The CRA plan’s roundabout, at an estimated cost of $500,000, was out of the city’s budget.) Many predicted that drivers would be frustrated by the limited options of that design, which would force eastbound traffic on Government Street to loop back around westward on Bayfront, resulting in illegal U-turns and dangerous median jumps.

The vehicular “goat path” onto Government Street

“That’s a huge safety concern,” Gray agreed, “[but] let’s speak about people making choices that are illegal.” He said that while touring the area around the Government Street terminus, he noticed a car trail (visible on satellite images) where people are apparently cutting through an Aragon service road to access Government via the Overgroup parking lot. It’s known as a “goat path” in pedestrian planning — the route that people take when there are no convenient facilities available.

“I said, ‘well I’ll be damned, they’ve figured out a way around it,'” Gray said. “People are choosing to break the law to come through here, which just shows there’s a strong need to come through here.”

Gray said that a design task force will look into several possible alternative options, but that his deliverables aren’t constrained by a particular budget.

“What I’m handling is the discussion of the community’s vision for this area,” he said. “This is our chance to tell the story of what we’d like to see.”

So what if all these meetings lead back to the original conclusion: that a roundabout would be ideal, but there’s no money for anything other than a “right in, right out” design?

“It may turn out that none of the short-term plans are satisfactory for the neighborhood, and we may need to put it off for two or three years,” Cosson said. “Right now it’s just not compatible with what the mayor wants downtown to be, which is kind of a walkable, friendly place.”

In addition to the July 6 meeting with Dan Burden, the West Florida Regional Planning Council will host public involvement meetings on July 12, 19, and 26, from 5:30-7:30 pm in the Hagler-Mason Conference Room. For more information, visit the city’s website or contact Alan Gray at (850) 332-7976.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola Digest.