Just days after closing a $7.5 million deal to buy the Blount and Brent buildings in downtown Pensacola, Bobby Switzer, the investor who made it all happen, was hitting the ground running.
As the managing investor of One Palafox Place, LLC, the group behind the project, Switzer was ready to reveal tentative plans for the property located in the very heart of downtown Pensacola.
The 4.5-acre site on the corner of Palafox and Garden streets not only contains the century-old Brent and Blount buildings, but also a number of Pensacola’s thriving nightspots and restaurants, along with commercial offices and surface parking for 250 vehicles.
The Brent-Blount acquisition carries special significance for Switzer, the great-grandson of F.C. Brent, the namesake for the entire block.
Switzer and his investment group take over a property that has been managed by Durnford Enterprises for the past 35 years. Founded by the late Crawford Rainwater Sr., Durnford Enterprises owned, renovated and managed the property until its sale to Switzer earlier this month.
Helping Switzer with his grand design is Chuck Tessier, a noted urban planner and consultant who was involved in the renaissance of downtown Asheville, N.C.
Switzer, along with Tessier, sat down with Pensacola Today last week and discussed his immediate plans for One Palafox Place and the Brent and Blount properties.
Question: Now that you and your investors own the Blount and Brent properties, what’s the next step?
Answer: We’re primed and ready and think the whole thing is moving in the right direction. What we’re looking to do is get to work on the buildings facing Garden Street. Because this is such a big project, our immediate focus is filling up the former Virginia College space, which we are now calling Marston Quina, the site of the former furniture store that occupied the space the longest. We’re working on that and moving people out of the Brent to the Blount Building to clear the Brent.
Q: Once you get tenants moved out of the Brent into the Blount, what will start to happen?
A: We’ll be redoing the façades all the way down Garden Street. There are five individual buildings along Garden Street, and they all have similar facades. We will fix all five facades on the five buildings to make them distinctive from each other. We’ll do whatever we’re allowed to do by the city and, because we’re taking advantage of federal tax credits, what we can do under the U.S. Department of Interior regulations. We’re also going to give the seven-story Blount Building a distinctive façade.
What we want to do is bring back the luster and identities of these buildings. We also want people to know that we are maintaining, and bringing back, the integrity of these historic buildings.
Q: What is the current structural integrity of the Blount and Brent buildings?
A: We’ve got some code issues, but structurally these buildings are as solid as a rock. They have great bones.
Q: What kind of businesses or commercial activities are you looking for to occupy the Garden Street buildings?
A: With a few exceptions we are looking for retail or restaurant businesses. We’re going to hopefully make an announcement soon for an office that’s going in the bottom of the Blount Building. It was already built as an office. Ideally, what you want is retail on the bottom, but part of the deal is we’re looking for cash flow, so we’ve decided to go with it.
We’re also talking with the (U.S. District) Courthouse for the space formerly occupied by Virginia College. We’re talking to them about a short-term lease to help solve some of their immediate problems. The GSA is also looking at other spaces all over town, and not just talking to us exclusively. (The GSA has determined the federal courthouse has serious interior environmental health issues, and the future of the building is in doubt.) It’s about 7,000 square feet of office space. And we have plenty of on-site parking. I’d rather have something long-term, rather than short-term. But it’s potentially a bird in the hand, and would allow us to quickly move into the Brent Building.
Q: Speaking of which, what are your long-range plans for the Brent Building?
A: Our base plan is we’d spend a year or more on the Garden Street buildings before we start converting the Brent Building into residential units. But with buildings like this, you’re always going to be working on one thing, then finishing that, and jumping to another.
But we’re hoping to change this from a “suburban downtown” to an “urban downtown.” What I mean by that is, we change downtown from a place where people work during the day and go home at night, to a place where they work and live downtown.
Q: Do you have enough parking for all these buildings?
A: Yes. Right now we have plenty of surface parking. But under city codes, if we add any additional office or residential floor space to the existing footprint of these properties, we will have to build a structured parking garage.
Q: You’ve bought century old buildings. Will you be able to retrofit them with 21st Century green building elements?
A: Yes. That’s is the number one priority. This is a little premature, but we’ve been in talks with Gulf Power about geothermal, about solar power on our buildings. They are talking to us about placing batteries in the building to store solar power. The beautiful part of this property is that we have seven buildings, and we have the ability to do a central energy loop to tie all seven buildings together and reduce overall energy costs. It’s the kind of thing that really gives us flexibility with 220,000 square feet of interior floor space.
Q: Five years from now what do you hope all this will look like?
A: Here’s what we want: We want residential, restaurant, retail and office tenants. We want this thing buzzing 18 hours a day. Our vision is not something that’s on the leading edge. We are way behind the rest of the world when it comes to creating an urban downtown. But that also makes it easy for us, because this kind of vibrant downtown environment exists in many places. So, we can just go out and copy what’s worked so well in other cities and bring it home to downtown Pensacola.