A new project planned for downtown Pensacola by a private developer aims to take an overlooked part of downtown and transform it into the next vibrant spot in the city center's expanding renaissance.
Called the East Garden District, the project will bring in a "place making" hotel, shops, restaurants and residential units in the block along Jefferson Street between Garden and Chase streets.
It will also renovate the existing buildings surrounding the popular Perfect Plain Brewing Co. to create space for new restaurants and shops.
Pensacola native Chad Henderson, founder and CEO of Catalyst HRE
, is behind the project and told the News Journal that through land purchases he's made over the last few years, he saw an opportunity to create a district that would continue the momentum of downtown Pensacola.
"I'm really a fan of creating places people can gather and enjoy and experience," Henderson said.
Henderson said he estimates when factoring in the price to purchase the land, the project is about a $50 million investment. It's one he believes can help transform the downtown to an even more walkable and bike-friendly community.East Garden District history
The East Garden District name comes out of the history of Pensacola. In 1764, after the British took possession of Pensacola from the Spanish, Elias Durnford, a British military officer and engineer, laid out the street plan for the colony that is essentially the same streets
in use in modern Pensacola.
As part of his plan, lots sold in the center of the town came with companion lots north of town for residents to use as gardens. Thus, the street these garden lots lined was named Garden Street.
"There are a lot of elements of our development that will pay homage to the British gardens with greenery and living walls," Henderson said.
The project would include a narrowing of Jefferson Street between Garden and Chase streets to make the sidewalks wider, lining it with trees and adding a pedestrian crosswalk to the middle of the block, although the parking spaces and two-way traffic will remain.
Along the west side of Jefferson Street, galleries will be installed, lining the back of the News Journal's parking lot that will allow artists or street vendors to set up shop along the sidewalk, and when not in use, fold up to act as a living wall with plants growing up the lattice that makes up the galleries.
The project, which is still in the design phase, will be privately funded, but the narrowing of Jefferson Street will have to be taken up and approved by the city.
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said he's spoken with Henderson about the project and is supportive of the concept.
"We have not agreed on the details, but in concept we are absolutely very excited by what Chad is offering," Robinson said. "There are a couple of things that will be in the details that we haven't exactly gotten down to (discussing)."
Downtown Pensacola revitalization
Henderson said he believes the project will transform the street similar to the transformation of Intendencia Street between Jefferson and Tarragona streets with the creation of the pedestrian plaza with a woonerf
"We've seen Mayor Robinson's initiative to create a more walkable and more vibrant downtown," Henderson said. "We think this is a really nice project that fits well within the vision of the growth of town."
The largest part of the project is the "place making" hotel along Chase Street that will have 100-plus rooms, rooftop bar and parking deck.
On Jefferson Street, a new mixed-use building will feature first-floor retail space and second and third floors for residential units. In front of that building will be a plaza with two smaller buildings for small shops that Henderson calls the "dueling depots."
The old Reynolds Music House building, built in 1940 according to the property appraisers website, will be renovated and become the location for a new "destination restaurant."
An addition added much later to the Reynolds building will be torn down to create a new pedestrian walkway to a plaza and the backside of Perfect Plain and the brewery's new cocktail courtyard Garden & Grain
. The walkway will also connect to the other side of Jefferson Street with a mid-block crosswalk.
Although not officially part of the project, the owners of Perfect Plain are excited about what the project will mean for the continued growth of downtown Pensacola.
"We're excited to see who our future neighbors are," said DC Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Perfect Plain. "Restaurants, bars, anyone, we welcome to that block north of Garden Street. We want to look ahead in a couple years and hope it's one of the most vibrant city blocks in our downtown."
Since Perfect Plain opened in 2017, it has become one of the few downtown destinations not directly on the Palafox corridor.
"I certainly believe in what the owners of Perfect Plain are doing and how well they've activated that space," Henderson said. "They have done just a great job in creating a place to gather, more than just a great beer, but a place to gather and really create an experience out of it. We want to build on the nice job that Perfect Plain has done in creating a destination for that block."
When Henderson bought the Rhodes building and the 2 N. Palafox building, the location of the News Journal's office, he didn't realize at the time the foundation of the project that would become East Garden District.
Along Jefferson Street, the property of the Rhodes building and the 2 N. Palafox building front the entire street, additionally the Rhodes building property includes a large parking lot and bank drive-thru.
"That gave me an idea that there may be an opportunity to eventually own both sides of Jefferson Street between Chase and Garden streets," Henderson said. The idea for the East Garden District was born.
Henderson's company, Catalyst HRE, has become successful in developing and managing health care buildings
in Pensacola and across the country, although this project is not directly affiliated with his company.
Henderson has brought in Tosh Belsinger, founder of Gulf Blue Group, a real estate and consulting company, to help him develop and design the project.
For Henderson, the East Garden District is a passion project to create a place for people to gather and have good experiences in his hometown.
"I think you can't go wrong if you're making great places for the local community," Henderson said. "If you create a great place where the locals want to be, everybody else will want to be there as well."