The making of Pensacola’s new downtown district, the East Garden District (EGD), calls for a recipe of the past and the future as well as local and national influence. The history of Pensacola has been foundational to the East Garden District’s vision and brand since Chad Henderson launched the project in 2019. Dating back to 1764, Elias Durnford’s city plan for Pensacola inspired the namesake of Garden Street, once home to the City’s garden lots, and now home and inspiration to the East Garden District. Building on the EGD’s historic foundation alongside Henderson, comes the influence of talented local professionals such as Jerry Pate Design, David Fitzpatrick Civil Engineering, Ruby Engineering, Dalrymple Sallis Architects, Gulf Blue Group, and many more. These influences offer an important community focus and connection for the East Garden District.
Now, as the EGD begins the design of its boutique hotel, mixed-use building, and parking garage, Henderson has welcomed Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Kahler Slater to the East Garden District team. “The power of a well-thought out public-private partnership can really move the needle downtown,” Henderson said.
“I think drawing from Kahler Slater's experience in hospitality and activating rooftops was something that was important to us, and certainly, working with someone local like Dalrymple Sallis has been important for casting the vision of what East Garden District could be,” Henderson said. “So we think a great approach is to have a bit of both. Somebody that has a great creative mindset and a great sense of the local environment, but also somebody that comes from outside our area to bring a fresh set of eyes to Pensacola.
”Kahler Slater’s architects use a performance based design process to create restaurants, hotels, medical centers, corporate headquarters and everything in between. Henderson first worked with Kahler Slater during a project with Catalyst Healthcare Real Estate, which has an office in Milwaukee. After staying at a hotel designed by Kahler Slater, Kimpton Journeyman Hotel, Henderson was completely blown away by the company’s skill, so he invited Kahler Slater to submit a proposal for the EGD project. Henderson has named Kahler Slater the architect for EGD’s hotel, mixed-use building and parking deck.
“At first, we were concerned that we wouldn’t get it. Anytime that we are not the local, we have those concerns. We built a great relationship with Chad and we had an emerging relationship with Tosh Belsinger, ”Marshall Butler of Kahler Salter said. “Sowe pursued it because we thought it was such a good fit for Kahler Slater, and we thought it was right in the middle of our strike zone from a value proposition.
”Kahler Slater is currently in the conceptual design phase of the hotel, focusing on how this new placemaking hotel, the anchor of the project, will fit into the downtown community.
“Chad is not just passionate about that hotel. He's passionate about Pensacola and breathing new life into that area by adding a hotel, which drives jobs and businesses,” Butler said. “It just elevates the district even further. We want to take into account what does the local flavor feel like? What does the neighborhood feel like? It has to fit in contextually. It can’t be just a cut and paste of a Milwaukee hotel.”
Although Henderson and his team are not ready to announce the brand or soft flag of the hotel, Henderson did share more details about their plan for the hotel. The hotel, which will be at the corner of Chase and Jefferson Streets, will have nine floors, approximately 160-170 rooms, event space, a rooftop terrace and a very inviting lobby with food and beverages available for tourists and locals to enjoy.
Kahler Salter is also the architect for a parking deck, which will be located behind the hotel on Chase Street. EGD is working with the architect, parking consultants, and the City to assess the parking needs for future buildings and current buildings in the district, such as IRIS, Pensacola News Journal and the Rhodes Building. The assessment will determine a shared parking model for the EGD and an appropriate space count for the parking deck.
Tosh Belsinger, founder of Gulf Blue Group, a real estate development and consulting company, has been aiding Henderson with developing and visioning the project. Alongside the conceptual design of the hotel, mixed-use building, and parking deck, Belsinger, Henderson, and the EGD team have been working diligently on the Jefferson Street road diet project.
“The road diet project is at the heart of the East Garden District. Our new Jefferson Street plan calls for creating a beautifully landscaped and pedestrian friendly streetscape for all of Pensacola and its visitors to enjoy,” Belsinger said.
The street diet, which narrows the street and expands the sidewalks, will be on Jefferson Street between Garden and Chase streets. This diet will increase the walkability and safety of EGD for visitors. Studer Properties completed a similar project around Southtowne and the YMCA, located on Intendencia between Tarragona and Jefferson.
For the past year, Belsinger and Henderson have been working with the City of Pensacola and the Community Redevelopment Agency on the street diet. The CRA, through are finance of existing bonds, unlocked capital for downtown projects within its district, so the CRA has proposed to fund $1,375,000 of the road diet project. The Jefferson Street project is estimated at $2.1million. EGD is currently working on an agreement with the City and the CRA.
“We're very proud of our work together with the City and CRA, and we are excited to co-invest in the improvement of Jefferson Street.” Belsinger said. “It is going to be such a great transformation of that street, and the synergies that it will have with the new hotel, mixed-use building, and urban plaza will be unbelievable.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting factors of this project is how quickly EGD will be able to return the city’s investment. EGD is projecting about $2.8 million in new property tax, sales tax and bed tax per year. Within the first year of EGD being fully built out, it should be able to return the city’s investment. Belsinger explained that over the next decade, as that tax base increases, the City and CRA can use the new tax revenue to seed other growth projects within the city limits.
The street diet project doesn’t stop there. EGD is using this reconstruction as an opportunity to enhance the overall appearance of the district. To draw attention to the district’s landscape and buildings, they will be moving power poles and overhead utility lines underground. Many cities across the state are moving utilities underground to prevent damage from storms like Hurricane Sally, which left many people downtown without power for several days. Belsinger explained that EGD is working closely with Gulf Power to implement this aspect into downtown and they are looking at solar power opportunities as well.
“This is all part of creating an inviting experience,” Henderson said. “Infrastructure, if not appropriately designed and implemented, can be an eyesore. Taking time to work on the front end is incredibly important for creating a sense of place in the East Garden District.”
Creating a sense of place is crucial for EGD. One way it’s achieving that is by incorporating businesses the local community adores. DC Reeves, the owner of Perfect Plain, is currently in the process of making tenant improvements to his upscale brewery, The Well. The Well is EGD’s first business and will be opening soon next door to Perfect Plain. Pensacola Beach’s Papa’s Pizza will also be joining the district. This will be the restaurant's first downtown location.
“We are very excited to help bring Papa’s Pizza brand downtown. Of course, DC has done such a wonderful job with Perfect Plain, so to be able to work with him and create a place for a sister brand has been special,” Henderson said. “I think both of those brands really link us locally. We feel as though that would be a representation of great operators in our community and help bring more people to this side of downtown.”
Although there is a long journey ahead before this new downtown district is complete, the EGD gives Pensacola plenty to look forward to. If you are interested in learning more about the EGD project, visit eastgardendistrict.com