Streets for People / Mallory Sq., Diesel Plant, Duval Street and Bahama Village Housing Projects Create Synergy to Bolster Downtown

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on January 14, 2022 and is reprinted here with permission. Follow us at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown on Facebook, Twitter and check out all our Streets for People stories here. 

After quick and expert work in putting out an RFP and selecting a vendor in the fall, the 3.2-acre Bahama Village affordable housing project referendum heads to voters Tuesday. Proposals are due from potential consultants for a Sunset Celebration/Mallory Square Master Plan February 2. After a couple false starts, the City Manager expects to release a new RFP for applicants to lease and renovate the old Diesel Plant buildings in February. And finally, after more than 2 years of delays, the Manager also tells us a Duval Street Revitalization RFQ will be released mid-February. While we’re disappointed Duval Revitalization has taken so long, perhaps the opportunity of Mallory Square, Diesel Plant and Duval Street processes happening in quick and overlapping succession will give us a synergy to coalesce community discussion and bolster our entire historic commercial district. Add in the new affordable housing and we’re hopeful for our downtown’s future. Let’s look at where we stand with each of these.

Duval Street Revitalization History

The history of Duval Street Revitalization has its roots as far back as Mayor Johnston’s first election in 2018 where she ran on a platform of revitalizing Duval Street. She came through by initiating the Mall on Duval pilot project in 2019 and the discussions with businesses and residents that grew from the on-again, off-again street closings in the 500, 600 and 700 blocks begat the release of a Duval Street Revitalization Plan RFQ on November 21, 2019 (RFQ). With the RFQ the City was to hire a consultant to work with the community on a vision and plan to renovate and revitalize our main street. 

Mall on Duval grand opening.

At the August 19, 2020, City Commission meeting a team of highly regarded consultants was selected. A contract was signed in November 2020. All was set for a project start and community meetings for the winter/spring of 2021 when the wheels came off. In our second most popular story of 2021Duval Street Revitalization Is Back on Track, October 1, 2021, we shared with our readers the two reasons Planning staff gave for the delay and switch. 1. The vendor’s contract was terminated when their project lead left the firm and 2. As the Planning Department secured a $500,000 Florida Department of Economic Opportunity grant to do the project (the City was paying itself previously), that meant following different procurement and contract rules and rewriting the RFQ. So back to square one, but with good reason.

In September Planning Director, Katie Halloran told us: “I think we can release within two weeks. If we give the RFQ eight weeks on the street, our Ranking Committee would have their rankings completed by December. We may get through City Commission and have our selected partner approved by January 2022.” It is January and the RFQ that was two weeks out in September hasn’t been released. It seems that a short-staffed Planning Department had to prioritize. Said the Planning Director on January 4:

“We are waiting to issue the Duval RFQ because we have released the Sunset Celebration/Mallory Square Master Plan RFQ and given limited staff resources we need to carefully time these projects. We will hold the mandatory pre-bid meeting for potential Sunset Celebration RFQ respondents this week.”

City Manager Patti McLauchlin followed up and said, “It is my desire to have the Duval Street Revitalization RFQ out by February 15.” Lots of people are rooting for this to be true.

An idea to generate discussion of a more people-friendly street where cars are welcome too.

Duval Street: Nicer to Look At, More Comfortable for People and Resilient in the Face of Climate Change 

When the idea was first proposed here’s what Mayor Johnston said in 2019:

“We all love our main street and want to see it prosper and bring our community together. Mall on Duval brought locals downtown who haven’t been there in years, prompting a conversation about what improvements need to be made, including widening sidewalks – they range from 8 to 18 feet – and adding planters and benches. There are street designs that have the sidewalk on the same level, and you divide it off by concrete planters. The street can be cobblestone and the sidewalks can be different materials. We also need shade, benches and water fountains.”

In September 2021 the Planning Director said:

“The scope of work for the Duval RFQ includes mobility planning, civil engineering, historic preservation, landscape architecture, and public facilitation. One major goal of the plan is to revitalize the corridor in a way that promises additional resilience to climate related risks, particularly sea level rise. This may also include working with local businesses to assist with economic resilience. This revised RFQ ensures we are meeting our DEO grant requirements, and is more directly tied to resilience, in addition to revitalization (making the street even nicer to look at and more comfortable for pedestrians).” 

At the time Ms. Halloran said “the planning process itself shouldn’t take longer than 12-18 months once a consultant team is on board. This project must be guided by community input. Identifying the funding to actually construct the full length could take years and the construction process will definitely take years. This is not a short-term project.”

Indeed, this is a huge, long-term, and potentially transformative effort. We look forward to seeing the RFQ. Said Mayor Johnston this week:

“While I am anxious to get the Duval Street revitalization project moving, I want to make sure that the scope is right and that it fully addresses our sea level rise issues and funding opportunities. Our City Planning Director Katie Halloran has such incredible long-term vision for our community including the connectivity between Mallory Square, Clinton Square and our 3 unique environments of Duval Street, Petronia Street and our Diesel Plant. Her input into our Duval Street Revitalization project has been invaluable and will assure that our plan will address the needs of generations to come. We are enhancing our public spaces for our residents and guests alike so that we can continue to be a quality community and a world class destination.”

Ideas for improved seating, shade, lighting and landscaping from City’s community meetings.

Mallory Square an All-Day Anchor at One End of Duval

Mallory Square became a hot topic a year ago as the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC) was about to give the City $168,000 for the installation of sunshades. “Since Mallory Square was converted in the early 1980’s from a parking lot to the plaza as it is known today, it has only received minimal upgrades, limited to security updates, brick seating, and landscaping here and there,” said the City at the time. The project would therefore be the first dramatic public improvement made since the early 1980’s. But rather than just install some shade structures, leaders thought now was the time to take a step back for a more comprehensive review. So, four community meetings were held with vendors, users and residents last March and April to gather opinions and ideas on how they envision Mallory Square. Questions were asked about shade, seating, landscaping, lighting, and sign options, as well as potential uses for the area.

An RFP was released on December 8 to find a consultant who will provide a Sunset Celebration/Mallory Square Master Plan. Submittals are due February 2, and the City Commission is expected to make a final selection in March. The desire is to attract visitors and locals beyond the couple hours of day it is used for sunset. The RFP says:

  • “The master plan shall be primarily associated with the square itself but shall include features to link together all eleven (11) adjacent City-owned parcels, which include historic buildings and structures.
  • The master plan will revitalize the square through the creation of a park-like environment surrounding the historic Hospitality House and Cable Huts, and an overall improved visitor experience through installation of landscaping, hardscape (seating, ground surface finishes), lighting, wayfinding (signage), and comfort features, including public restroom facilities and shade structures to ensure the space is inviting through the day and evening. It must also include the expansion of the Waterfront Theatre on its west elevation to allow for outdoor performances and access to the square from the rear of the historic structure. 
  • The master plan will include recommended improvement for access and circulation within and beyond the square to Zero Duval and Truman Waterfront Park through waterfront promenades and walkways. Central landscape and hardscape features must seamlessly incorporate and feature existing historic structures and sites, while allowing for increased reuse of the square and Port services associated with the T-Pier. 
  • The vendor must endeavor to integrate designs with the city-initiated Duval Revitalization and Resiliency Plan.”

The last bullet is important as it signals none of these planning efforts will occur in a vacuum but rather, they will be coordinated, and build off each other.

Architectural rendering of renovated Diesel Plant from the Rams Head group proposal.

Diesel Plant as Another Historic Anchor for Downtown

The former Keys Energy diesel plant, a complex of five decaying buildings in Bahama Village near the entrance to the Truman Waterfront was built in the 1880’s. Keys Energy owned it and ceased operations in the 1970’s but did nothing with the property, letting the buildings deteriorate. They gave it to the City for free in 2016. In February 2019, in response to an RFP, the Key West Art and Historical Society (KWHAS) won a bid from the City to stabilize and redevelop the buildings as a multi-use cultural facility, with an interactive museum, restaurant, microbrewery and mixed-use/gallery space. Michael Guida, KWAHS Executive Director said, “The Society’s objective is to create a greater sense of place, historical understanding, civic pride and community ownership while preserving the property.”

However, negotiations for a contract dragged on as KWAHS wanted a longer lease to justify their investment. Enter COVID-19 and KWAHS hit pause on the project to concentrate on keeping their existing properties afloat. When KWAHS asked last January for another long pause to regroup, then City Manager Greg Veliz withdrew the contract offer saying he didn’t want a repeat of the recently failed Joe Walsh restaurant on Mallory Square fiasco that kept getting delayed. So back to square one.

Then at the August 17 Commission Meeting the Rams Head group provided a very nicely done, unsolicited proposal to redevelop the Diesel Plant saying “Our goal in the redevelopment of this property is to create a multi-cultural facility that engages the community and promotes tourism continuing on the vision of the Key West Art & Historical Society. Our past experience, resources and financial stability allow us the vision in seeing the greater benefit this can provide Key West.” They proposed a microbrewery, multi-use flex space, walking museum, outdoor courtyard & playground, culinary & brewing programs and a coffee shop. 

The presentation was so impactful that Commissioner Lopez sponsored a resolution at the November 16 meeting to accept the proposal. He and Commissioner Weekley voted yes, and the other five voted no. All seven then voted to direct the City Manager to put out a new RFP for potential applicants to lease and undertake remediation and repair of the facility. 

Hopefully multiple companies, including the Rams Head group, submit some great proposals and we finally get this project back on track. 

Proposed Lofts affordable homes in Bahama Village.

New Affordable Housing in Bahama Village

Last week in our story 3 Reasons You May Not Have Thought of for Voting YES on 3.2 on January 18 we made the case that this approximately 126-unit project does way more than provide much needed affordable homes for long-time residents of Bahama Village. Two of those reasons directly relate to the adjacent business community. 

1 – More locals’ living downtown is good for nearby business. It means 300 more people that can shop at grocery stores, hair salons, coffee shops, bodegas, and convenience stores. And it creates a more local focused, less touristy vibe and that’s good for our historic business district.

2 – Housing downtown makes it easier to bike, walk and use transit to get around. So because the new residents are so close to everything, they won’t add to traffic and parking congestion downtown. Rather they’ll add to the pedestrian ambiance.

Paul Menta of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery and head of the Shop Mom and Pop Key West group summed it up best when he said:

“Keeping locals living locally in Key West has many advantages such as it keeps the local economy going as they buy at Mom-and-Pop type places, they have options to bike or bus to work, which takes the stress away of driving and parking, and they add to the ambiance of Key West by having locals walking around with tourists. Sounds funny but when you travel you want to shop and eat where the locals are!”

But we shouldn’t be satisfied with this one project. One of the best things we can do to help business and downtown is locate more affordable housing there, instead of up the Keys. We’re sure to discuss this in upcoming articles.

Revitalized Mallory Square, Diesel Plant and Duval Street + More Residents = a Better Downtown

We’ve been grappling in fits and starts with Mallory Square, Diesel Plant, Duval Street and Bahama Village projects for years. The recent history of each is strewn with false promises, hopeful beginnings, and dashed dreams. And yet now all four of these projects are coming to a head at the same time. That’s a good thing because they are all so interrelated and shouldn’t each be done in a separate vacuum. The opportunity is for the businesses and residents to view and discuss our downtown as a whole living organism rather than disparate parts. And that can only mean a better overall outcome for each project.

Picture it. The year 2024. A newly refurbished with shade and seating Mallory Square is full of life for more than two hours a day. The nearby Diesel Plant is bustling with visitors and locals who live at the nearby Lofts affordable homes in Bahama Village – who are also supplying many of the staff who work at the complex. Those 300 residents are also supporting other nearby businesses and helping create a more local vibe the entire length of Duval Street. All along Duval there are signs of what’s to come as construction begins on widening sidewalks, installing trees and benches and creating a more people friendly main street. Locals from around Key West flock to downtown Mom-and-Pop Shops. As a result of more locals being downtown, visitors enjoy a more real experience and stay longer and come back more often. Everybody wins.

We think it no coincidence that Mayor Johnston, City Manager Patti McLauchlin, Planning Director Katie Halloran and Strategic Planning consultant Elisa Levy are front and center on pulling all this together now when so many in the past have failed to get things done. This quartet have a vision for a way forward and the know-how and tenacity to make things happen. We all need to give them the support and resources to succeed. Our downtown wins if they do.

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Feature picture is from artist Jessica Chang. You can find the nearly 50 KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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