by Jeremy Morrison
Which structures in Pensacola qualify as historically significant? Which ones deserve to be celebrated, protected, saved from the clean sweep of a fresh start? And which are simply old, unsalvageable tear-downs, standing in the way of progress?
Those are the big questions the Pensacola Planning Board needs to answer. Questions that board Chairman Paul Ritz considers “very complicated and deep.”
“My house is over a hundred years old,” Ritz began the discussion during the Aug. 25 planning board meeting. “I don’t believe it has a historic aspect to it. It’s just old.”
Last month, the Pensacola City Council directed the planning board to determine the best process to protect the city’s historically significant structures following the high-profile demolition of a house many considered historically significant in order to make way for new townhomes. The council placed a six month moratorium on the demolition of structures built in 1916 or before to give the planning board time to figure out how to find a balance between preservation and progress.
The most obvious question the planning board must answer: what exactly is a “historically significant” structure?
“There’s a lot of different aspects to this. It’s very hard to boil down to a few words,” said Ross Pristera, historic preservationist for the University of West Florida’s Historic Trust.
Pristera told the planning board that various factors needed to be considered in order to define something as historically significant. Beyond the criteria of age, there are such considerations as a structure’s architectural particulars, and its connection to an individual or event to take into consideration.
The historic preservationist also cautioned the board not to assume that because a structure is humble that it does not hold historical significance. Pristera gave as an example the stock of smaller houses populating neighborhoods such as Belmont-Devilliers — an area that does not lie within one of the city’s protected historic districts and has proven ripe for demolitions and new development.
“If we start demolishing building by building, slowly you have that creep of losing that history, and then suddenly you turn around and say, ‘There’s only two left. What happened, when we had a neighborhood of 40 or 50 of them?’” Pristera said, explaining that sometimes such structures, taken individually or in groupings, can represent entire eras and populations.
Not everyone agrees that the planning board should be cobbling together a protective process for older properties facing demolition. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward came out against the effort this month, deriding “the recent move to add new layers of bureaucratic review to the issuance of demolition permits.”
The mayor lobbied for private property rights and new development in a statement which ran in the daily paper. He suggested that those calling for preservation are “merely obstructionist, akin to a frivolous lawsuit.” And warned that a required review of demolition requests could “inject uncertainty and confusion in to development projects.”
“… so much so that property owners and developers abandon worthwhile projects,” Hayward wrote in his statement. “We risk adding layers of bureaucratic red tape to the sale and development of private property instead on creating the framework for bringing attractive properties onto the tax rolls.”
Another critic of added protections is architect Scott Sallis. The former planning board member relayed his own experiences dealing with similar restrictions with his office, a building that he “reluctantly restored” because its located in a protected district.
“It’s an absolutely horrible building that deserves nothing but a bulldozer,” Sallis said, describing the only redeemable portion of the structure to be some old “handmade trusses.” “Just because it’s old, as in my case, doesn’t mean it’s important, or historical, or worth saving.”
Another opponent of increasing safeguards for historic structures was Dan Lindeman. The former Architectural Review Board member and downtown property owner said that many of the city’s older structures were safety hazards in need of demolition. He suggested that if a city staffer deemed a structure unsound, it should be torn down no-questions-asked.
“Get rid of it, demolish it, I don’t care who lived there, I don’t care if George Washington lived there,” Lindeman said. “Sometimes things just gotta go.”
But others, like planning board member Nathan Monk, appeared intent on moving forward with the establishment of a more protective review process for historic properties.
“I read the mayor’s op-ed and to me I don’t see how preservation stops new development,” the board member said later saying that a more restrictive environment could serve as a sort of filter to ensure development more in line with the character and feel of a particular area. “It will not prohibit development in Pensacola, it will determine who comes to Pensacola to develop.”
Monk also specifically spoke about historic properties that he said had been traditionally vulnerable, such as those located in minority areas outside of districts designated as historical.
“The Devilliers area, I think, is one of the main reasons we’re having this conversation,” Monk said, describing how he felt that there is “a clear and present disparity in Pensacola about what history is being honored and what isn’t.”
Monk went on to speak about how the Belmont neighborhood represented a rich tapestry of local African-American history, and about its heyday as a blues hotspot, having played host to numerous big-name musicians. He noted how similar areas enjoy much more celebration.
“The reality is, if Elvis Presley had so much as peed in the building there’d be a sign out front and we’d be selling sunglasses and everything else,” Monk said, alluding to racial disparity and selective recognition of historical significance.
Because this month’s planning board discussion was only the beginning of the historic structure dialogue, no decisions were made concerning the safeguards needed for the city’s older structures. In the months to come, board members, as well as members of the public, will continue to explore what exactly constitutes a historically significant structure, and how such property should be treated when it comes to demolitions.
Watch the Pensacola Planning Board’s discussion with the UWF Historic Trust Historic Preservationist Ross Pristera: