Pensacola awarded $1.6M to design 75-acre urban park north of downtown Pensacola

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We must act to ensure this transformative project is a top priority to restore our most neglected neighborhoods.

More than a century ago, Pensacola grew into one of the Gulf Coast’s great cities because its residents and leaders thoughtfully dreamed, planned, and built the city we enjoy today.

It took leaders with vision like Mayor Charles Henry Bliss to realize, back in 1905, that our city could only thrive in the 20th century by building ample streets and sewers — and so they were built. He imagined great parks and public spaces — and so they were created. Leaders like Bliss saw the potential of opening Pensacola to the world with a booming harbor and naval airbase — and so it was done.

As we continue into the 21st century, Pensacola is once again a city on the move. Businesses and residents are returning to a reenergized downtown. Our waterfront is being reimagined as a hub for tourism. And once-declining neighborhoods across Pensacola are now surging forward with new jobs, new development, and new life along our streets.

The current view beneath Interstate 110 in downtown Pensacola.

Pensacola is flourishing. The Pensacola metro area is expected to surpass 500,000 people by 2020. So the question before us, like it was to those Pensacolians of the past, is how can we improve our city today, and ensure future generations enjoy a place that is environmentally healthy, economically prosperous, and equitable in opportunity for all?

This week, I was thrilled to see the U.S. Department of Treasury award $1.6 million to begin the design for the Hollice T. Williams Stormwater Park and Greenway. The award is the result of the project being selected as one of 10 projects that were sent to the Treasury from Escambia County as part of the first round of RESTORE funds allocated to the Pensacola area in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

A conceptual sketch of the proposed 1.3-mile 75-acre Hollice T. Williams urban park and greenway in Pensacola.

If we model it after similar projects, such as the enormously successful Cascades Park in downtown Tallahassee, the Hollice T. Williams urban park will help to enhance and restore two largely minority communities that were ripped apart a half-century ago due to the construction of the Interstate 110 corridor to downtown Pensacola. Once a thriving corridor that hundreds of Pensacolians called home, the state and federal government uprooted families under the threat of eminent domain, forever changing the landscape of some of Pensacola’s most diverse neighborhoods.

An aerial view of the construction of Interstate 110 through Pensacola’s Eastside and Long Hollow neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Today, the Hollice T. Williams Park is a mostly vacant 1.3-mile highway underpass situated at the threshold to downtown. Though improved with the Hunter Municipal Pool and other traditional park features, this prominent and highly visible corridor is largely incomplete, leaving two neighborhoods with an underutilized community space.

This award to begin the first phase of design of the park is the culmination of a more than decade-long effort to reactivate and revitalize an urban area between Pensacola’s Eastside and Long Hollow neighborhoods north of downtown Pensacola.

With this funding, we can finally begin to transform this corridor into an iconic, one-of-a-kind social center for our community, enhancing our quality of life by offering a 75-acre green space that brings together arts, education, history, and wellness. Another complementing feature of the park will be the under development $2.5 million Blake Doyle Community Park — the brainchild of Pensacola realtor Jon Shell and his Upward Intuition group — which would occupy a full city block underneath I-110 to build a skate park and community space.

Even more, this park will be dual-use — offering miles of new walking and cycling trails within the city and also acting as a regional stormwater park that will incorporate the large Long Hollow stormwater pond that protects downtown from flooding. Much of the park will be designed to flood during heavy rain events and the park will offer flooding relief to nearby neighborhoods and residents during major storms.

If done right, this project truly is the perfect example of how to properly utilize and invest the millions of dollars received as a result of the BP Oil Spill back into our community.

This greenway corridor will not only become a radically revitalized gateway connection into the heart of the city, but a destination for neighborhood residents and those who seek a unique and culturally diverse venue for recreation. Similar to Tallahassee’s Cascades Park that has been followed by nearly $200 million in private investment, the construction of this urban park will incentivize investment along the underutilized North Palafox Street corridor. As Mayor, I would aggressively seek funding to reconstruct North Palafox Street between Cervantes and Maxwell Streets as a pedestrian-friendly two-lane road and to construct protected bike lanes and median improvements.

A view of the Long Hollow stormwater pond between Guillemard and Tarragona streets in Pensacola.

With this award of initial funds, the design of the Hollice T. Williams urban park and greenway should soon begin this summer. My concern, however, is that it is Escambia County — not the City — that will build the project. According to city officials, originally the county process was designed to sub-grant the funds to the City to build the project. However, more recently county officials expressed the desire to contract it themselves.

Given that this project is on City property, intersecting with City infrastructure both upstream and down, and benefiting only City neighborhoods — this should be a project built and overseen by the City of Pensacola, not by Escambia County. I believe this project could be transformative for Pensacola’s Eastside and Long Hollow neighborhoods — and for Pensacola as a whole.

North Palafox Street between Cervantes and Maxwell streets should be reconstructed to allow for bicycle lanes to promote multi-modal transportation options and revitalization of historic storefronts.

As a citizen, I have worked to see this project come to a reality and we simply can’t let this opportunity to build a world-class park for our city fall out of our hands. As Mayor, I will work with the county to assume management of this project and make the funding and construction of Hollice T. Williams Park a top priority to bring back life into some of our most neglected neighborhoods.

This is our moment to come together and transform Pensacola. I hope you’ll join us in this new vision for Pensacola.

View the Hollice T. Williams Greenway Framework Plan

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