Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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Downtown 2.0


by T.S. Strickland

A stroll down Palafox Place isn’t what it used to be.

Walking north from the Plaza de Luna, one can’t ignore the signs of progress. The newly christened SoGo District is rapidly expanding its footprint, with new shops and eateries popping up—it seems—on a monthly basis. Further north, at the intersection of Palafox and Garden, the story is much the same.

On a recent morning, customers flowed in and out of Pure Pilates—yoga mats and sneakers in tow —while next door, a smattering of rain-battered pedestrians nursed lattes at Fosko Coffee Bar. Bobby Switzer and Billy Lovelace sat among them, staring out through the rain at the Brent building.

The duo are among a group of investors hoping to restore the historic structure and adjacent Blount Building to something of its former glory. The mixed-use development, still in due diligence, is one of several that, if successful, could inaugurate a whole new era for downtown Pensacola—bringing a gush of new residents and commerce into the city’s urban core.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of these projects—and the closest to realization—is located just a few blocks southeast of Fosko, at the intersection of Jefferson and Romana streets.

Chicken Or The Egg
There, local businessman and philanthropist Quint Studer and his wife, Rishy, have purchased an entire city block that formerly housed the Pensacola News Journal. The paper’s old digs will soon be demolished to make way for a $50 million mixed-use development that will feature retail shops, office space and—crucially—251 units of apartment housing.

The Studers’ development alone could prove to be a game changer for downtown by dramatically increasing the stock of affordable housing, which now hovers somewhere near zero.

City leaders have long said more residential density—and affordable housing, in particular—is necessary if the city is to continue to grow. John Peacock, who chairs the Downtown Improvement Board, is among those voices.

“When you talk about community building, it’s kind of the chicken or the egg thing,” he told Inweekly. “We’ve gotten a little bit ahead of ourselves on the retail side. Palafox is booming. New businesses are opening all the time, but we need more residents.”

The Studers’ current plans call for apartments priced between $750 and $2,100 per month, with the majority priced less than $1,000. That range, though not within reach for everyone, would be well below anything available on the market today.

Peacock said he hoped the Studer development would prove a boon to existing downtown businesses and attract new entrepreneurs to open up shop in the city’s center.

“When you get projects started, that creates other opportunities,” he said. “When the PNJ building goes down, I think that’s going to create a buzz like no other.”

The Studers, though perhaps the most visible harbingers of progress, are not the only ones betting on downtown’s future.

Another Catalyst
Back at Fosko, Switzer and Lovelace were less concerned with expanding downtown’s footprint than they were with reinvigorating the city’s urban core.

One Palafox, LLC, the group of investors to which both men belong, last year contracted with Durnford Enterprises, Ltd, to purchase the city block bounded by Garden, Palafox, Romana and Baylen streets.

The property—4.5 acres total—includes a parking lot on the west side of Baylen, as well as the historic Blount and Brent buildings and a total of 67 existing tenants.

The contract is currently in its due diligence phase, but Switzer said he and his partners hope to close on the deal by the end of April. Assuming all goes as planned, the property would then be renovated in two phases.

The Blount Building, whose seven stories tower over traffic at the southwest corner of Garden and Palafox, is almost fully occupied already. Because of this, Switzer said the structure would have to be renovated piecemeal, as tenants’ leases come up for renewal. That process could take between five to 10 years to complete, he said.

Changes will be much more swift in coming to the adjacent Brent Building—a three-story structure that is bookmarked on the north by New York Nicks and on the south by Global Grill.

Switzer and Lovelace emphasized that their plans were still tentative. Aside from finalizing the sale with the current owners, they must also contend with historic preservation rules, the inevitable surprises that come with renovating an aging structure and the maze of existing tenants’ leases and concerns.

All those caveats aside, the group hopes to convert the top two stories of the building—mostly unoccupied at present—into more apartments. Switzer said the few office tenants occupying the third floor would be relocated to vacant office space in the Blount Building before renovations there got underway.

Once that is accomplished, they hope to begin demolition in the building by fall and could begin renting the apartments as early as summer of 2016. The approximately 1,000-square-foot units would be priced in the “mid-range,” Switzer said, adding that they would be the “next step up” from the Studers’ project.

Not all the changes will take place above ground level. Switzer said he and his partners planned to renovate some of the ground-floor spaces, as well, as tenant leases came up for renewal.

Switzer and Lovelace said they hoped to install a tunnel, much like the one across the street, at the Palafox Wine Bar, near New York Nick’s. The pass-through would open up on a courtyard, where they hope to have more retail shops and outdoor dining options in the future.

Lovelace said they hoped the changes would improve the “pedestrian flow” of the space and make it a “destination” for shoppers and diners.

Switzer and Lovelace said they hoped their plans would accelerate the city’s transition from a place where people go mostly to be entertained on nights and weekends to a full-time city where people live, work and play.

“What I want is for this to be an 18-hour city,” Switzer said. “I’m not saying we’re going to be New York, but there’s no reason we can’t have some of the same amenities.”

They want to spur additional investment in the city’s urban core—just as the Studers’ investments in the SoGo District had paved the way for other entrepreneurs to colonize that area.

“We hope that we are the catalyst for other people to infill around us,” Switzer said.

“All these things come in spurts,” Lovelace added. “They don’t come nicely spaced out. They come as the economy starts to build, as there is optimism in the air, and there certainly appears to be optimism.”