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Residents Seek BP Funding To Create Walkable Riverfront In Downtown Pensacola

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September 30 is the final deadline for those wishing to submit projects for RESTORE funding. With only two weeks left to apply, one group of residents is proposing an innovative solution to address downtown Pensacola’s stormwater problems. 

The group, which includes archeologist Elizabeth Benchley, local attorney Erick Mead and sustainability consultant Christian Wagley, have proposed resurrecting a subterranean, colonial-era creek to create a walkable riverfront in the heart of downtown. 

They hope doing so could prevent a repeat of last April’s floods, which devastated vast swaths of the city and brought downtown’s stormwater problems into stark relief. Beyond that, though, they argue that “daylighting” the creek, as the practice is known, could improve water quality, promote heritage tourism and provide an attractive public amenity to anchor redevelopment of the city’s west side. 

“For the most part, when we've done stormwater projects in the past, they've done only one thing,” Wagley said, “and that is deal with stormwater. This is a project that offers so many benefits on so many levels. Yes, to deal with the flooding. Yes, probably to deal with water quality issues ... but also in creating this incredible, urban amenity in an area of town that is going to be rapidly developing.”

According to Benchley, who directs the Archeology Institute at the University of West Florida, one must look into the city’s past to understand today’s stormwater issues. 

When Europeans first moved to downtown Pensacola, nearly 300 years ago, they settled on what was essentially an island. The land was bounded on the east and west by creeks, and everything north of Romana Street, or half of modern, downtown Pensacola, was a swamp. Palafox Street, now a main commercial artery, got its start as a causeway linking the colonial city to North Hill. 

All of this is plainly visible on the colonial-era maps Benchley keeps stockpiled in her office. However, it’s hard to envision when one takes a walk through modern-day Pensacola. 

The creeks, where colonists once did their laundry and drew their drinking water, were forced into pipes and paved over a long time ago. The westernmost stream, known as “washerwoman,” because settlers used to do their laundry there, exits the aquifer at the toe of North Hill, in the vicinity of the downtown library. From there, it flows underground along Spring Street, emptying into the bay just west of the Community Maritime Park.  

Benchley thinks this creek was one of the main reasons settlers chose to move here, in the first place, and it is this creek that she and her colleagues think might hold the key to the city’s stormwater problems. 

“We think this is the best source in the Pensacola Bay drainage for fresh water that intersects with the bay itself and has high enough ground that a settlement could be built and not get flooded out,” she said. 

Besides providing fresh water, the creek also helped drain the immense swamp to the north. Over the years, people dug channels to drain off more of that water. Then, they filled in the land with trash and built over it. Still, they couldn’t completely overwrite geography.  

Walking down Spring, that's easy to see. Benchley, Wagley and Mead met up recently to lead a small group on a walking tour of the old creek bed. They started at the Suntrust Tower, just one block downstream from the library, and continued south. They had gone only one block when Mead stumbled upon a small sinkhole that had opened up in a parking lot. 

“We were talking about subsidence and undermining,” he said. “I rest my case.”

Benchley knelt down to look at the soil. It was a rich, black muck, interspersed with bits of charcoal.

“I always like to say that you need to look at the colonial maps to see what the ground underneath your feet really is,” she said, “because we're still in this wetland.”

Indeed, a walk along the course of Washerwoman Creek is a tour of sagging buildings, sinking sidewalks and waterlogged soil. Because of the high water table, much of the land along the creek’s course remains only sparsely developed, a fact that could make it easier to restore the creek, should the project be funded. 

Right now, Benchley and the others are rushing to finalize their RESTORE proposal, so they can submit it to the county ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. They have not yet come up with a final budget estimate for the project, though Mead said restoring the entire length of the creek could be costly, as it would require buying out private landowners and relocating buried utilities. 

Partially for this reason, Mead has suggested it might be most sensible to restore the creek in sections, or phases. The group already has spoken with local businessman Quint Studer about the possibility of using a portion of one of his properties, just across from the Community Maritime Park, as a demonstration site. 

Doing so could facilitate development of the rest of his 19 acres, widely viewed as a linchpin in the ongoing redevelopment of downtown. Andrew Rothfeder, president of Studer Properties, said this week that the discussions about the creek had been “positive,” though no commitments have been made thus far. 

“At this point, we still have a lot of research and due diligence to complete,” Rothfeder said. 

Once the group has submitted their funding application, it will be reviewed by a team of subject matter experts, the RESTORE Act Advisory Committee and the Escambia County Commission. Once all projects have been ranked, a list of finalists will be posted for public review and comment at www.myescambia.com/restore. Commissioners will have the final say in which projects are funded. 

This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.