OLF-8 master planners recommend lots of residential and retail, plus 'innovation campus'
An OLF-8 market study recommends that the 640-acre property be used for diverse residential housing and retail and that any industrial parks on the site should focus on "innovation" rather than traditional manufacturing.
Escambia County acquired the former training airfield in a land swap with the U.S. Navy in 2019. After some debate about how the land should be developed, the county, Navy Federal Credit Union — whose Pensacola headquarters are adjacent to the site — and a cohort of citizens agreed to bring in a master planner to determine the highest and best use of the property.
After conducting a market study and a financial analysis and assessing site conditions, master planner DPZ CoDesign and its collaborators recommended the county build 1,900 housing units, 182,500 square feet of retail, 600,000 square feet of office/industrial space and a 100-room hotel.
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The county hopes to offset some of OLF-8's development cost with Triumph funds from the BP oil spill settlement, and a key contingent of obtaining that money is that it is used for economic development. Currently, it is anticipated the final development at OLF-8 will produce at least 1,000 jobs.
OLF-8 is smack dab in the center of the county's fastest growing area, and new housing divisions are popping up around it a break-neck pace.
Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who represents the district, said the county initially acquired the property to create high-paying jobs. He and many of his constituents in the Beulah area have voiced concerns about putting more housing on the site, which they worry could exacerbate traffic woes and consume valuable land that could be used for creating jobs.
Bergosh noted that the current recommendations are preliminary, and that all stakeholders are still doing their due diligence before anything is set in stone.
"Certainly, we're still going to take a lot of input from the public, because that's a critical component of developing the master plan of what we do out there," Bergosh said. "And to be honest, I was surprised that they recommended residential because we've got so much residential under construction in that area already in the private sector. I've heard from residents that they prefer not to have any more residential out there, but it's all over the map in terms of what people want. A lot of people want a park facility, a lot of folks want to see some retail out there. Obviously, we acquired that property to create high tech jobs, so that's kind of where my interest lies."
He added, "I really firmly believe at the end of the day, we're going to strike a compromise, and everyone is going to get something out of it. No one will get 100% of what they wanted, but I think everyone will get something out of it, and I'm optimistic we'll be able to secure a Triumph Gulf Coast grant to help offset the costs of acquisition."
Preliminaries studies have found a high demand for housing and that commerce parks aren't necessarily the best value
New York real estate counseling firm Weitzman Associates LLC said its market research study found demand for new residential is strong. It reported 2019 had been a banner year with a record 9,825 homes sold at an average price of approximately $263,000.
It noted, however, "the Pensacola housing market is generally limited to single-family, standard townhomes and traditional apartment product that is repetitive and lacks sophistication in its design and execution."
Weitzman recommended diversifying home options with 900 new traditional rental units, 200 loft rental apartments, 400 for-sale townhomes, 100 for-sale patio homes, 100 for-sale cottages and 200 for-sale traditional single family homes built over four phases.
The firm also suggested the final master plan be inspired by the concept of an "agrihood," a community centered around agriculture and outdoor amenities and recreation. Weitzman said those neighborhoods promote health and social interaction, create jobs that support the local economy, are highly marketable and command higher price points.
Addressing retail and job creation on the site, Weitzman said the current growth and dearth of retail options in the area means the site is primed for new businesses. The firm recommended the county focus on things like specialty grocery stores, neighborhood retail shops, food and beverage services and outdoor and experiential businesses.
To date, one of the big sticking points over the development of OLF-8 is whether it should become a commercial park centered on industry, a town center with mixed-use development and a main-street feel, some combination of the two or something else entirely.
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Weitzman, addressing the commercial park discussion, wrote that generally, "industrial leasing has been sporadic across the Pensacola metro area, and net absorption (the number of new tenants that move in versus the number of tenants who move out) has been largely negative in recent years."
The firm reported that the six existing commercial and industrial parks in the area occupy about 1,470 acres, pay about $586 million in annual payroll and generate about 10 jobs per acre.
Still, Urban 3 — an urban planning firm collaborating with DPZ and Weitzman on the master plan — found that in terms of tax revenue generated, these parks tend to be under-performers for the county.
Using the ubiquitous Walmart as a baseline, Urban 3 reports the retail giant generates about $540,000 in taxable value and six jobs per acre. As a point of comparison, Urban 3 noted that an area bank, Trustmark Mortgages, generates about $5.4 million in taxable value and at least 60 jobs per acre.
It found five local commerce parks — Century Industrial Park, Central Commerce Park, Marcus Pointe Commerce Park, Heritage Oaks Commerce and Ellyson Industrial Park — generate about seven jobs and $94,600 in taxable value per acre.
Weitzman said its research indicated a 100-acre "innovation campus on the north end of the site could create about 20 jobs per acre and attract "companies of the future." Other innovation campuses around the country tend to focus on research, development and technology.
DPZ and its partners were originally supposed to present their finding to the Board of County Commissioners in a Aug. 13 meeting, however that meeting was canceled. The meeting has been rescheduled for Sept. 3. The recommendations in the presentation are not final, and the community is invited to share its hopes and visions for the OLF-8 property during a design charrette currently scheduled for Sept. 21-29.
Bergosh noted that he was really impressed by the research and detail included in the preliminary report, and that he felt confident that the final product DPZ delivered would be great for Beulah and for Escambia County as a whole.
"I would encourage everyone to actively participate in this process," Bergosh said. "Everyone in the county has a vested interest in this project being a smashing success. And I say that because resources county-wide were utilized to acquire this property and this property was acquired to benefit the entire county."
Citizens can stay up to date on the OLF-8 project and provide their input by visiting myolf8.com.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8527.