Streets for People / Progress on Five Historic District Projects Means More Life, Locals, Prosperity, and Resiliency for Our Downtown
By Chris Hamilton. This story was written and and published by KONK Life newspaper on October 21, 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.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the City’s Strategic Plan spurring a lot of stuff getting done this year on affordable housing and sea level rise. But what’s really caught our attention are a series of five long talked about but little advanced downtown projects that Planning Director Katie Halloran, with help from the Mayor, City Manager and Strategic Plan Coordinator, have quietly been pushing forward. Key West citizens have long discussed and tried to grapple with refurbishing Mallory Square, revitalizing Duval Street, renovating the historic Diesel Plant, building housing on the 3.2-acre Bahama Village site, and cleaning up Clinton Square for years, if not a decade or more. The recent history of each is strewn with false promises, hopeful beginnings, and dashed dreams.
And yet now, because of the accountability built into the Strategic Plan, all five of these are finally progressing. These actions, all happening in quick and overlapping succession, with plenty of resident focused community input, are giving us a synergy to bolster our entire historic downtown commercial district. That’s win, win, win. More prosperity for our downtown Mom-and-Pop shops, a more locals focused destination for residents, and enhanced experiences for visitors too. Let’s take a look at where we are on all five of these, hear from some downtown locals and discuss why each of these projects are important for our future.
Residents Put Downtown Projects in Strategic Plan. Strategic Plan Accountability Spurs Action on Projects
In developing the City’s Strategic Plan last year about 4,000 residents were surveyed. Locals said they want the City to address affordable housing and sea level rise as their top two priorities. But they also wanted more pedestrian friendly streets and named Duval Street (#1), Mallory Square (#3), and the Diesel Plant (#7) as top of the list projects they want to get done. These three projects along with the 3.2 Acre Housing Development (The Lofts at Bahama Village) (#8) and Clinton Square (#13) are all top 15 projects in the Plan. Including it in the Strategic Plan is ensuring that there’s been accountability to get these projects started and moving forward after years and years of nothing but talk.
The accountability starts with Mayor Teri Johnston’s earnestness in getting these projects in the Strategic Plan and her tenacity in getting a Plan done. It rests with City Manager Patti McLaughlin’s ability to lead an unwieldy City Hall bureaucracy to action. But it also includes the fact that Teri and Patti hired Elisa Levy to not only write the Plan but to help implement it over the long-term. For more on the specific mechanisms for accountability in the Strategic Plan read: “The Mayors’ Strategic Plan is Helping the City Bureaucracy Get Stuff Done,” September 16, 2022.
Here’s what we know about the five projects:
1 – Clinton Park Square
At the August 16 City Commission meeting, project Albie Balliu presented a history and plans (video of her presentation and PowerPoint slides) for the triangle park in front of the Customs House next to Mallory Square. The obelisk monument at its center was erected in 1866 by the Navy to honor those fallen in the Civil War. The area has long been neglected and had off and on parking and drive through issues as no one seems to know if it is okay to drive onto or not. Park or not. It’s even become a waiting area for Uber pickups. There’s no seating, little lighting, you can barely see the monument through the foliage and well it really isn’t much of park. That’s all going to change very soon as the City will create an historic park area with bench seating for sitting and gathering, poinciana trees for shade, lighting, historic markers, wayfinding and more.
The project has received all of its approvals from the Tree, Parks and Recreation and HARC commissions, engineering drawings are almost complete, as are bids for construction. Building is expected to get underway before the end of 2022.
2 – Mallory Square
Mallory has long been the center of Key West maritime history. From anti-piracy operations in the 1820’s to hub for the wrecking industry soon after and then a long period as a place for storage of goods being transferred via ships at the port. In 1961, the City and the Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) restored and repurposed the little used area as a center for community gatherings. The spot became famous in the 1970’s for the now iconic Sunset Celebration. The current windswept brick pavers and drab landscaping were put in during the late 1980’s. For the last decade plus people have talked about improving the area because it looks run down and neglected and is only really used a few hours every day. At the Mayor’s direction, last year the Planning Department held public workshops with tenants and residents and conducted a survey to get input on how to improve the Square and surrounding area.
What they heard and shared via a compact Vision Plan was:
- Create a program/vision to keep people in the square throughout the day,
- Build connectivity to surround properties,
- Improve lighting and safety, and
- Provide seating, shade, landscaping, and signage.
With this in mind, the City hired the world renown Boston based planning and urban design firm Sasaki – “Better design, together” – in March to develop a Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan for the entire Mallory Square district including Meson De Pepe, Historic Tours of America, the Waterfront Playhouse, the Cultural Preservation Society and the Key West Art Center. Here’s how the City’s Planning Director, Katie Halloran describes the progress:
“The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan is in full swing, and Sasaki is the City’s consultant leading the project, including the public engagement work. The first online survey has just closed but the website will be live throughout the project for the public to check on progress and provide feedback https://mallorysquare.engage.sasaki.com/. Now, Phase 1 public input will guide the consultants as they develop two design concepts for the public to review. On December 9 Sasaki and City staff will be at the Christmas Bazaar at the Customs House and at Sunset Celebration on December 10, to gather input on conceptual master plan features. The second survey (not yet released) will provide a virtual opportunity for the public to provide feedback on the two conceptual master plan concepts.”
The best summary of this process and most thoughtful recommendations on what we’d agree that we’d like to see as a result is Linda Grist Cunningham’s excellent article: “Key West’s Mallory Square | What Happens When History, Nostalgia and Cash Collide?” September, 24, 2022, on her Key West Island News blog. Give it a read.
3 – Keys Diesel Plant
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, after an RFP process, the Key West Art and Historical Society (KWAHS) won a bid from the City to stabilize and redevelop the buildings into a multi-use cultural facility. That fell through during COVID as KWAHS was dealing with just keeping their other properties afloat.
Last summer (2021) the Rams Head group, who manage the Key West Theatre, Coffee Butler Amphitheater and Rams Head Southernmost restaurant, provided an unsolicited proposal to redevelop the property. They proposed a microbrewery, multi-use flex space, walking museum, outdoor courtyard & playground, culinary & brewing programs, and a coffee shop. Their presentation was so well received that Commissioners Lopez and Weekley voted to accept it. But the rest of the Commission said a new RFP should be put out so there would be some competition. However, there were no responses to that RFP that was broadcast in May and due in July. That’s how we got to today.
Gary Volenec, City Engineer/Interim Director who heads this project says it will be the spring before a new RFP hits the street soliciting a potential developer. But in the meantime, the City will endeavor to demolish buildings 3B and 5 and begin some preliminary stabilization as soon as possible in advance of, and to help facilitate, construction of The Lofts at Bahama Village (the 3.2-acre site). The 3.2-acre site is immediately adjacent to the Diesel Plant property. And in redoing the RFP the City hopes to find ways to garner more interest from potential developers. Doing some of this initial work, should help.
4 – The Lofts at Bahama Village
The 3.2 acres of City-owned land in Bahama Village has been talked about since the 1980’s when the U.S. Government gave it and the land that is the Truman Waterfront Park to the City. It’s complicated and sad history that after many fits and starts is finally heading in the right direction. Late last year the non-profit A.H. Monroe won an RFP process to develop a much-needed affordable housing project on the site. On January 18 of this year Key West citizens agreed to lease the land to A.H. Monroe for 99 years, making them eligible for various grants to help offset project costs.
According to the Planning Director “The project has been to the Development Review Committee and the Tree Commission and will be on the Planning Board agenda next on its way through the City of Key West review and approval process.” When I contacted A.H. Monroe’s Executive Director Scott Pridgen this week he said:
“Currently The Lofts are going through the Planning Department process and should be ready for permitting to start construction by April 2023 and opening by October 2024. The project will give Bahama Village residents more housing opportunities downtown.”
Everyone agrees we need more affordable housing for workers. Putting 126 units and 300+ residents smack dab in the middle of downtown is even better. More full-time people living downtown helps create a more local focused vibe that’s good for our historic district. And because it is downtown the new residents will be able to walk, bike and take transit to get around. *
Says Paul J. Menta of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery and head of the Shop Mom and Pop Key West group:
“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 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!”
*We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that although we’re fans of more downtown housing for local workers, we’re flummoxed by the City allowing a mainland building style and insisting on an overabundance of surface car parking at the expense of landscaping and amenities for the new residents. Especially when there is so much empty parking on adjacent properties. We hope the City fixes this and recommend the article: “Too Much Surface Parking at the Lofts Is a Wasteful Use of Valuable Downtown Land,” February 3, 2022.
5 – Duval Street
Mayor Johnston ran on a platform of revitalizing Duval Street in 2018. She initiated the Mall on Duval pilot project in 2019 and the discussion about the pros and cons of that led to the release of a Duval Street Revitalization Plan RFQ in late 2019. At the time Mayor Johnston said:
“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, promoting a conversation about what improvements need to be made, including widening sidewalks – they range from 8 to 18 feet – and adding planters and benches, shade, and water fountains.”
After a long selection process a vendor was selected and a contract signed in November of 2020. And then the selected vendor ran into some trouble with their principles quitting. Rather than simply select another firm from the qualified list the Planning Department chose to take additional time to put out a whole new RFP because in the interim they’d learned that if the RFP and subsequent contract followed some State procurement procedures the City would be eligible for Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) funding for the project. And low and behold, staff secured a $500,000 DEO grant to pay for the effort. So, putting off hiring a vendor was worth the wait. Of the new revised RFP, the Planning Director said in late 2021:
“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 resilience to climate related risks, particularly to 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.”
The new Duval Street Economic Corridor Resiliency and Revitalization Plan was broadcast this past March, proposals were due in June and a Duval Steering Committee after review, ranked the firms on October 4, 2022. Katie Halloran says, “The next step will be for the City Commission to review the finalists and approve the City’s partner firm before the end of the year. Once the finalist has been chosen the City works to negotiate the contract with the firm and the project begins.”
I asked local Truman Annex resident and community volunteer Ray Warren what his thoughts were on the Duval Street project:
“Duval Street desperately needs shade, seating, and green space. Other than the somewhat neglected, and highly commercialized, pocket park at the far end, there are no such spaces along the entire length of the street. Even Manhattan has parks, and in many places, park benches.
More locals would venture downtown, and support downtown, if it were seen as a place to gather, people watch, meet friends, or socialize, instead of merely being a utilitarian way to go indoors and be cut off from the street.
I know that property along Duval is extremely expensive. But, in addition to little parklets that might be obtained by reducing on street parking, the City should actively be on the lookout for lots that might be attainable for a fair price. Ideally not by condemnation, but by simple negotiation.
Yes, many of the buildings are historic and protected. But not all of them really contribute to the historic nature of downtown. Imagine something like Duval Square, but instead of being a purely private commercial space, imagine it was a shady oasis open to the main street.
One burned out business has remained in ruins for basically 5 years or so. An opportunity like that should be grabbed for green space. I don’t think it’s going to be built back and its original form.”
The upcoming community process on Duval Street will give voice to Mr. Warren’s thoughtful ideas and provide all residents and the business community an opportunity to share ideas and contribute.
Past articles on this project include:
- Duval Street Revitalization Moves Forward, June 10, 2020
- Duval Street Revitalization Help Sought Via RFQ, December 10, 2020
- Duval Street Revitalization Project Brings Hope to Downtown, December 28, 2020
- The Week Donkey, Whataboutism, Bathwater and Duval Street’s Future, February 19, 2021
- Eight Things We Can Do to Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Cars, March 6, 2021
- With Duval Street Revitalization Plan Way Behind Schedule, Here’s 3 Quick Wins for Pedestrianizing Duval Street Now, July 16, 2021
- Duval Street Revitalization Back on Track, October 1, 2021
Why Proactive Planning Is Needed
We mentioned the survey and Strategic Plan above because every time we start to talk about these projects, the leave-it-aloners, naysayers, whatabouters and stop-trying-to-change-Key-Westers whine that nothing needs to be done. On the contrary, time and time again, the majority of residents have said otherwise. Change happens whether you plan for it or not. Proactive planning means the people, not just moneyed land interests and big corporations get a say in that future. So, we encourage everyone to keep participating in these planning processes.
Why the Convergence of These 5 Projects Is Good for Downtown
Clinton Square Park starts construction this year. The planning process for the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Master Plan is well underway and will be complete in May of 2023. Then building out that vision will begin to take place. Interim work on demolishing structures that can’t be used and shoring up structures that will be used for future redevelopment of the Diesel Plant will start in the coming months and then a solicitation for a developer will take place next spring. The Lofts at Bahama Village are expected to start construction in the spring of 2023 and be open for residents 18 months later. After a decade+ of talk, THAT’S a lot of progress that City Hall should be proud of because it will strengthen our downtown.
Here’s what our Mayor, Teri Johnston said a while back about these projects:
“I’m anxious to get the Duval Street revitalization project moving and want it to address sea level rise. Our City Planning Director Katie Halloran has such an incredible long-term vision for our community including the connectivity between Mallory Square, Clinton Square and our three unique environments of Duval Street, Petronia Street, and our Diesel Plant. Our plans will address the needs of generations to come.”
I asked downtown small business advocate Paul J. Menta what all these projects mean for downtown. Here’s his response:
What does it mean and why is this important for downtown/the City that all of these projects are finally starting to gel?
“It means we have a Mayor and commission who are working with departments to see all these things through. It’s good to see all on the same page preserving history but also making use of areas for our visitors and locals. It’s adjusting to the future.
We have areas like Duval Street and downtown that could be better used for all. Keeping it more green and more accessible is better for visitors and keeps a look and feel of downtown. I wish they would bring the electric trolly back! Looking at our history, Duval has changed serval times in the last 150 years, this is one of those times. Clinton square needs to be cleaned up so people can use it and see the history. The future is to keep our historic island look and if HARC’s rules are followed on improvements, that’s what it will be…improvement.”
Anything you are particularly excited about?
“I am excited to see more space available for small mom and pop future entrepreneurs. 1 or 2 people being able to start up a small business in order to be able to afford to live here is really important. Example, using Mallory during the day for “lunch at Mallory Square” would enable people to use the space for lunch (not getting in the way of sunset celebration ever!) and this could be a new business area for locals to have carts and all have different foods and some gifts to sell. You could do this 10 am – 2 pm with limited carts and local business vendors and they could still work and evening job if desired to have the income needed to afford to live here.
We need to make places as well for future businesspeople to offer services we send out to the mainland or buy online in city spaces that people can do a startup business with and make money. The future is our residents to work and make an income to be able to live here, no answer on housing being so expensive, but making enough money to afford it doesn’t hurt!”
These five projects are important for our future. They’ll make downtown nicer to look at, more comfortable for people and resilient in the face of climate change. As Paul’s pointed out it is an opportunity to bring more locals downtown, emphasize our history and help our local Mom-and-Pop businesses. But we’ll let the Mayor have the final word as she sums it up best:
“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.”
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You can find two years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.