Big Picture Plans
Catching Up with Community Developer Quint Studer
By Jeremy Morrison
Quint Studer says he’s familiar with SimCity—a video game in which players engage in city-building exercises. And if somehow he were playing the game and Pensacola was the simulated city, he’d feel pretty good about the municipal landscape he’s helping to create.
“I think we’re winning,” Studer told Inweekly. “I think the challenge now is to plan all this empty space in town proactively, so it’s a diverse, inclusive opportunity.”
Studer has been viewing Pensacola through this lens for quite a while. Over the years, he has built, purchased and renovated properties. He has been notably strategic and purposeful in his actions, with various projects fulfilling specific goals, such as his Southtowne development increasing downtown’s retail and residential stock.
At the moment, Studer has numerous irons in the fire. He’s trying to sell Southtowne. Then there’s his new retail-residential development in the Belmont-DeVilliers area and also bigger picture items, like the recently completed master planning for the vacant parcels at the Maritime Park and the 19 acres he owns across Main Street. Then there’s his efforts to provide educational materials to new mothers to improve kindergarten readiness in the area.
To catch up on these various initiatives, Inweekly sat down with Studer for an update.
During that meeting, he detailed the status of his development projects and, perhaps more interestingly, talked about why he pursues the projects he does and how he doesn’t consider himself a developer.
“I never wanted to be a real estate developer,” Studer said. “I wanted to be a community developer and real estate is a tactic.”
Recently, Studer has put probably his most prominent project to date, Southtowne, up for sale. The mixed-use development—retail on the lower level and around 250 units of residential apartments on the upper levels—opened last year in the heart of downtown Pensacola.
Studer said he and his wife, Rishy, have a considerable amount of cash tied up in Southtowne—the couple personally guaranteed its $50 million construction loan—and that selling the property would allow them to reinvest into the community.
“We’d like to do that with all our stuff,” Studer said, “you know, build it, get it going, sell it, then take that money and invest it in the next project.”
He has multiple “next” projects already on the docket. In Belmont-DeVilliers, Studer is already at work on another Southtowne-esque development next door to his DeVilliers Square building.
This new project, Savoy Place, will run about $6.5 million and feature retail on the bottom level with two dozen residential units above, which are intended to be more affordable than their counterparts at Southtowne.
“It allows us to create a lower price point for people that want to be downtown and in a hip and very diverse neighborhood,” Studer said.
He is also a minority partner in Two Hundred Garden West, Inc., a retail-residential project planned on the site of the former school district administration building on Garden Street, across from his Studer Community Institute (SCI) building (which was formerly the SunTrust Bank building).
Initially, the development group requested to demolish the existing structures on the Garden Street property—structures some consider to have historic value—but more recently, the city’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) signed off on plans that incorporate the existing structure.
“I very much want to keep the school building,” Studer said. “I think we have a great idea for that building.”
To accommodate the historical elements of the building, Studer said the developers need to find that developable space in other ways.
“It means you’ve got to be able to go higher and more dense than normal,” Studer said, explaining that an ARB member suggested the project build higher. “I love that idea because that gives them a view of the water and the town.”
Insofar as making practical use of the old school administration building, Studer said that the group could conceivably transform the building into student housing for UWF’s new cyber security center nearby or perhaps segment the building into “pods.”
“The thought is if you could take that school board building and maybe make pods, where there’s some bedrooms with some smaller kitchenettes,” Studer said. He also pointed out one of the challenges presented by such a concept—vast hallways. “You could make an exercise area in one hallway; you could create a workspace in another hallway; you could create an entertainment area in another.”
There’s been discussion of pursuing historic tax credits to help fund this structure-saving version of the Garden Street development, but Studer didn’t sound optimistic on that front.
“That’s tough because that then starts limiting what you can do in the facility. So, I think you’re almost going to need something besides historic tax credits,” he said.
An Education in Education
While Studer views his development projects as having community-building aims, some of his recent and long-term efforts are purely community-driven. This is most evident in his work pertaining to education.
This past year, he was plugged into the push to change from an elected to an appointed school superintendent.
“When people look back 50 years or 30 years from now, one of the biggest changes they’re going to say that had a positive impact on our community is the appointed superintendent of schools versus an elected superintendent,” Studer predicted.
For the past two years, Studer has been involved with an effort to supply new mothers in the Pensacola region with educational tutorial as well as take-home material meant to enable them better to foster healthy brain development in their baby.
“The challenge we have is children that grow up in poverty naturally hear 20 to 30 less words than children that don’t grow up in poverty,” Studer said. “So, it’s not that children of poverty aren’t as intelligent as children not in poverty; it’s that they’re not hearing the words to build the brain.”
Studer’s efforts in early childhood education are aimed not only at improving the prospects of area children but also at making the region a more attractive sell when employers try to lure school-conscious young families to the area.
“What businesses look for now is talent, either talent that’s already there or talent that they can attract to the community,” Studer said. “So, if you look at that, education becomes a big player.”
Working a different education angle, Studer has also been instrumental in bringing the CivicCon series to town. The ongoing series, done in partnership with the Pensacola News Journal, is meant to inform local residents better so that they can more effectively navigate the city’s civic landscape and contribute to discussions that lead to positive changes in the area.
“According to Harvard professor John Kotter, when he talks about change, you need a burning platform, number one, and then you need the critical mass,” said Studer. “And I think we’ve had a lot of burning platforms, but we haven’t been able to get the critical mass. So, all of a sudden you get CivicCon, and you get 200 or 300 people at an event.”
Views of the Canvas
Studer has pretty nice views of Pensacola from atop the SCI building. It’s a good place to survey all the opportunities to get a sweeping look at the big picture.
“We have so many blank canvases here,” Studer said. “If you go up to the top of the white building, you’ll be amazed at how much is empty—it’s like farmland. We have so much of it.”
With so much open real estate, there’s potential for a multitude of game-changers. Or, just as easily, nothing at all. That’s why it’s important, Studer stresses, that Pensacola proceed carefully and with intent.
This is why Studer approached the city about developing a masterplan for the remaining Maritime Park parcels and his nearby 19 acres, the former site of a wastewater treatment facility. And this is why he funded New York-based urban design firm SCAPE’s work reimagining the downtown’s waterfront and connectivity that the city is now acting on.
But, while Studer says he enjoys participating in such city-building planning processes, the community-minded developer doesn’t intend on taking many more active development roles.
For example, he doesn’t intend to personally develop any of his 19 acres on West Main Street, leaving that work to others.
“I don’t plan on doing any building down there, because then people would say, ‘Well he just did this so he could build a building,’” Studer said of the 19-acre property, which, for decades, was the site of the ECUA Main Street Sewage Plant.
He hinted that Savoy Place in Belmont-DeVilliers may be his last development project. But that’s not to say he doesn’t plan on being an active player in mapping out Pensacola’s future physical and civic landscape, especially when on the horizon rests a 50-acre urban opportunity made possible by Baptist Hospital’s recently announced relocation.
“Baptist’s land has unlimited potential in changing this community,” Studer said. “I’d like to be involved in helping plan it, making sure there’s the right masterplan, making sure that the right things are happening.”