On Wednesday, Pensacola’s Architectural Review Board will decide the fate of year another historic building.

Built in 1941, the building at 215 West Garden Street was originally home to the Pensacola Vocational School, the community’s first public trade school. The building features art deco touches, distinctive rounded copper roof vents, and brick corbelling, among other architectural features.

In later years, the building was renamed after Dr. Vernon McDaniel — a longtime educator and Escambia County’s first black school board member — and adapted to house the school district’s administrative offices. The building has been empty since the school district relocated its offices nearly a decade ago. 

It isn’t always easy to find a productive use for an old building, but tearing it down makes that outcome impossible.

Jeff Speck
CivicCon speaker and urban planning consultant

Now, a development group led by Quint Studer wants to tear the building down to make way for a mixed-use residential and commercial building, in the mold of Studer’s Southtowne project.

But we can do both: preserve and reuse the historic buildings on the site while building around them. And that’s exactly what Jeff Speck — a CivicCon speaker currently working as a consultant for Studer — says we should do.

“More and more, against this landscape of increasing homogeneity, it is principally a community’s prewar buildings that serve to distinguish it from everywhere else and make it worth visiting, or perhaps calling home,” Speck writes in his latest book, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places.

The preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings like the Vocational School is a key ingredient in place-making and a big part of the success of cities like New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and others. And it makes financial sense: studies have shown that historic districts generate more jobs per square foot, support small businesses more often than big chains, and are more resilient in economic downturns.

“It isn’t always easy to find a productive use for an old building, but tearing it down makes that outcome impossible,” Speck writes.

What makes it worse is where the Vocational School building is located — on downtown’s west side on the edge of the Tanyard, a neighborhood which has been decimated in recent decades. It’s the same neighborhood where the historic John Sunday House was demolished to make way for, well, an empty lot. That area doesn’t have a lot of historic buildings left.

In this case, the solution is actually easier than in others. The current site plan calls for a large, Southtowne-style mixed use building to be developed at the northern end of the site, with townhomes built on the southern end. Simply flip it: lose the townhomes, save the Vocational School building, and build the new development on the southern end of the site instead.

The developers behind this project, sadly, are sticking to the same old lines: the building isn’t historic, it can’t be saved, it’s not profitable to give it a new life.

Bollocks.

In another city, with developers who see a bigger picture, a building like the vocational school building would be a prime candidate for adaptive redevelopment. Maybe it would be lofts or shops. A food hall. One only has to look toward the cities whose success we want to emulate. Maybe we should load ARB members, local officials, and developers onto a bus for an overnight trip to Savannah, to see how small businesses and national brands alike have adaptively reused historic buildings to create an incredible sense of place.

Our Architectural Review Board meets at 2 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of City Hall. If you care about the buildings which help make Pensacola a special place, I hope you’ll come down and ask them not to approve the demolition of this one.

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