Will this bold vision for downtown Panama City finally be the chosen one?

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A concept for downtown Panama City.

Longtime Panama City residents might have had a sense of Deja Vu this week as Panama City officials unveiled the new plans for downtown Panama City. 

Although it is certainly more comprehensive than the last time the “strategic vision for Panama City’s Historic Downtown and its Waterfront,” seemed to share at least some of the DNA with a previous vision for the marina and downtown. 

This plan was presented in the wake of Hurricane Michael by Dover, Kohl & Partners a town planning & urban design firm. The ambitious plans call for changes in the landscape around the marina so visitors and residents can walk, bike and enjoy the waterfront. It also calls for more housing, a hotel, a new civic center and a host of other changes. 

See the whole plan here.

During the last stab at this Developer Bob Sonnenblick presented an ambitious plan to the city which changed the landscape around the marina, called for hotels downtown, a refurbished civic center, a movie theater and a water taxi. 

Sonnenblick’s plan was warmly received by the city council and residents seemed either happy or indifferent to the ideas. However, a group of loud (it’s unclear how large the group ever was) folks rallied against the proposals and they were eventually able to torpedo the project altogether. 

In February of 2018 Mayor Greg Brudnicki and the city council fired Sonnenblick saying that he had failed to provide a required feasibility study to the city.

“Bottom line, he hasn’t committed to the contract that the city told us that he would have to commit to and therefore the agreement should be terminated according to the contract,” said Frank DePinto, who was against Sonnenblick’s plan.

DePinto is well known amongst city leaders and the local media. He regularly emails long missives about every aspect of possible changes with the Marina along with reasons why this or that change won’t work.

As the city moved to turn the Marina into something akin to the highly successful Pier Park DePinto and others took to social media and fueled the fire of a social media campaign to, “save the Marina.” 

Critics argued that the only thing the anti-development folks were interested in saving was low rents on the city provided boat slips. 

This argument both for and against development at the marina is mostly moot. Hurricane Michael had the final word on the old marina when it destroyed it.  And, the “save the Marina” folks ran their preferred candidate against Brudnicki in the last mayoral elections.

They lost. The mandate may finally be his.

What’s at stake now is just how much change can the city spur at the marina and in downtown Panama City. 

Brudnicki said this week that the city has worked to make sure those who live and work downtown were part of the plans. The new designs were created after massive input from resident thanks to the city’s “Charrette Week” and has a 95 percent approval rating, he said. And this new team of urban planners are capable of helping the city get the ball in the endzone.

“Last time, and I think the times before that, we had pretenders,” Brudnicki said Thursday night during another gathering with local residents to view and discuss the plans. “We didn’t have people who had the wherewithal to pull it off.”

Now, we have Dover and the St. Joe Company, he added. St. Joe could even start work in the first quarter of next year, Brudnicki said. 

Meanwhile, DePinto is also back at work. 

In an email to more than 30 people, including city leaders and members of the media, he took issue with how the charrette feedback was gathered, the plans for a park and the proposal for a convention center. More feedback from DePinto is almost certainly on its way. 

STRATEGIC VISION

The Dover plan comes with 10 cornerstone ideas for developing the downtown area. Dover was hired by Hagerty Consulting, who was hired by the city to oversee several aspects of the rebuilding process following Hurricane Michael. 

Waterfront access, downtown activity, downtown living, safety & security, sustainable building, resilient infrastructure, connected, placemaking, gathering spaces and updated standards. 

City officials stress that while some of these ideas can be implemented by the city itself others will have to be done by private developers and business owners. 

Dover’s concept for the marina begins with tree lined promenade for residents and visitors to walk and bike along the water. There are boat slips but only enough for about 20 or 30 vessels. Beyond the trees there is a large hotel, an open space amphitheater for community gatherings, a waterfront restaurant. In this plan the civic center torn down and replaced by a multi-purpose events center that is near but not on the waterfront. 

The promenade could even continue into northwest downtown, Dover wrote, through land acquisition, easements and incentives. The plan calls for downtown to be more centrally connected to the waterfront and makes the waterfront the centerpiece of the area. 

At least one aspect of this vision is already underway. The city has a memorandum of understanding with the St. Joe Company to explore the hotel concept. The hotel will not be larger than five stories according to the understanding.

“The sea wall will have to be regularly maintained and repaired over time,” the plan states. “New development here can produce income and help offset maintenance costs. In addition, hotel visitors will help make cash registers ring in the downtown.”

The next big move is to transform downtown with a new attitude and a new look.

That includes a redesign of Harrison Avenue with wider sidewalks, more trees, pedestrian lighting and “water smart” parks. This is, once again, a more walkable area. And downtown visitors will have to learn parallel parking as the new wider sidewalks change the streetscapes away from the old parking.

Meanwhile, the plan also calls for a plaza raised to the level of area sidewalks and geared towards pedestrians. “Harrison Plaza,” would include a tree or statue in the center and could be connected to the Center for the Arts. 

For a change in attitude and demographics, Dover and city leaders are hoping to attract Gulf Coast State College and Florida State University to the downtown area. GCSC is thinking of moving its arts program to downtown in part so their students can interact more freely with local artists. 

In keeping with that theme, planners suggest support for the arts in their “placemaking” section. 

“Arts and culture should infuse the Downtown plan, and the arts community should be involved to bring their creative spark to the redevelopment process,” the plan states. “A monthly or weekly gathering of local musicians to jam together on the waterfront could have appeal. One particular opportunity could involve multimedia treatment of the Chevron tank farm, possibly projecting art onto the tanks to reduce their negative visual impacts.”

The plan also encourages the city to bring back members of the arts community who were forced to leave lower-cost rental spaces when they were destroyed by Hurricane Michael. 

The plan also urges city officials to host monthly events like charity races, a farmer’s market or outdoor movie nights to boost downtown visitation. The city is urged to host at least one major event in 2020 and downtown merchants are asked to experiment. 

“Downtown merchants should organize themselves to offer evening hours once a week to help test and demonstrate the market for later hours,” the report states. 

Certainly, these concepts are not new. The Downtown Improvement Board has tried many of them to various levels of success. Planners are also hoping the city will restore and reuse vacant sites and damaged buildings with infill buildings. That essentially means a building that is not being used could be replaced with a city-owned purpose or developers could be enticed into taking it over. The old bank on Harrison Avenue became the new city hall. Now, the Dixie Sherman site could be reused as a hotel or a convention center.

Following Hurricane Michael, many low income and median income workers either lost their homes or their rental units and have been unable to find new housing. The lack of housing has combined with skyrocketing rents as the owners of those few apartment complexes still standing see an opportunity to double and triple their profits no matter the cost to the community. 

For those who live and work in Bay County one of the biggest changes the plan calls for is more housing in downtown Panama City. 

The vision sees a new neighborhood that takes over vacant parcels near Beach Drive and 6th Street and replaces them with apartments, rowhouses, duplexes, and detached single-family homes. The area would come with a corner store, public green spaces, and the possibility of a city-owned block that could be the site of semi-public facilities like a YMCA. 

“A larger Downtown residential population is needed to support area businesses and provide 24-hour activity. Planned public improvements and safety/security upgrades will give people the confidence to live downtown; the return of more people downtown can then make viable the return of businesses that can support them (a small grocery, pharmacy, etc.),” the report states. “The City should explore potentials for providing financial incentives to property owners that want to convert second-story spaces to residential units above storefronts.”

A new more residential friendly downtown will need a new emphasis on safety.

In the past, city leaders hoped to move the Panama City Rescue Mission to some other location in hopes that the homeless who are often seen downtown would move too. The mission is a privately-owned Christian organization and no attempt to move them or buy them out has succeeded so far. Despite the large Christian population in Bay County and the Panhandle no other community or neighborhood has welcomed the Mission with open arms. However, in response to a community outcry the Mission scaled back some of its work.

The current plan states that more activity and enhanced lighting will promote feelings of safety and security. It also calls on the city to secure and clean up buildings and enforce its codes. 

Brudnicki said Thursday that the city had given people a year to get their homes repaired and their yards fixed. The city also offered a program to help homeowners with the issue. After the one year anniversary city officials will begin to move forward with code enforcement, Brudnicki added.

A community recovering after a hurricane would be remiss if they didn’t address building codes and infrastructure. Dover calls this resilient infrastructure and sustainable building. 

“Utilities need to be repaired and upgraded to support rebuilding and development. In addition, power lines may be placed underground to improve resiliency to storms,” the report states. “Priority should be to areas where near-term projects (Downtown streetscape retrofits, marina area rebuilding) are contemplated, so the new infrastructure can be integrated with planned improvements and provide multiple benefits.”

It also calls for a downtown stormwater master plan and stormwater parks. The plan also suggests 14 different ideas for protecting buildings and dealing with runoff including, floodproofing, expanding floodplains, reforestation, bioswales stormwater planters, and porous pavement. A “water smart park” is also suggested. 

Water smart parks, “can be designed to filter, absorb, and store onsite and off-site runoff to help address neighborhood-scale flooding.”

Downtown parking is addressed by encouraging walking, biking, scooters, and rideshares, using the existing parking in a smarter way and changing parking rules. The developers also propose parking garage with “habitable building liners that face streets and public spaces.” 

“The liners could include retail, office or residential uses,” the plan states. “Parking garages are great assets to downtowns when designed correctly and at the right scale to the surrounding context and development.”

This more than 100-page plan is not yet finished. City officials say this is only the first draft and they are seeking more community input. 

Ambitious might be too small a word to describe it. 

“I know I’ve heard we had plans and we’ve done this and we’ve done that and they just get dusty and they sit on a shelf,” said Commissioner Jenna Haligas. 

What’s different this time, she added, is the quality of the team working with the city and work everyone put in bringing residents into the process early and often. 

“What this provided for the commission and provided for the citizens was some trust,” Haligas said. “The majority of Panama City is begging for it.” 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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