Blight or opportunity? Old Baptist Hospital campus future up in air.

Baptist Health Care is moving at the end of this month to a brand-new facility in Brent, leaving behind the Pensacola property the hospital has called home for more than 70 years.

While some staff will remain in a few of the smaller buildings on the 51-acre campus, most of it will be empty, including the three medical towers and the hospital.

Former Pensacola City Council member Ron Townsend has lived a block and a half from Baptist’s West Moreno Street campus for more than 60 years, almost as long as the hospital has been there.

Between the controversial concrete barriers on nearby Cervantes Street and the soon-to-be-vacant Baptist campus, he worries what’s next for the neighborhood

“The city and the county, they do not appear to have any big interest,” Townsend said. “The city’s concerned, but they’re just not making any plans that I can tell, where they’re going to really make that an attractive area, rather than just having us isolated here and have us on what I call an Afro-American Reservation.”

Former Pensacola Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn hopes Baptist Hospital and the city can develop a reuse plan for the Baptist Hospital campus after the healthcare provider leaves the neighborhood.

Former city council member Jewel Cannada-Wynn has also lived near Baptist for more than 30 years. She said the hospital is an anchor in the community. It’s where many neighbors go for everything from healthcare to lunch and they’ll feel the loss.  

“It is a bridge between the county and the city,” said Cannada-Wynn, “because you have the Englewood area to the north of it, you have the Moreno area to the south of it. You have North Hill and the North Hill Highland area also in there. It bridges people and communities. I am very, very concerned. My thoughts are that I would like to see the city of Pensacola take charge of the development of the site.”

Baptist administrators have been working on what to do with the vacated property since plans to build the new hospital were announced in 2019.

However, no plan has been finalized because the old medical towers and hospital buildings are standing in the way, physically and financially.

Baptist administrators say they’ve studied different ways to remove the obstacles.

Engineers hired to evaluate the aging buildings for residential use say it would be too “cost prohibitive” to renovate and bring them up to residential code as apartments or condos.

Tearing them down is also going to be expensive.

The demolition is estimated to cost $15 million to $20 million. That’s more than the property is worth, especially when building affordable housing on part of the property is one of the goals.

“Developers can’t make the numbers work if they have to include the cost of the demolition and abatement in their deal when they’re making it,” explained Jen Grove, Baptist vice president of external affairs. “We’ve continued to talk to developers. Even as late as last week, there are many developers that are interested in building single family, affordable home ownership opportunities. They just need help with that demo and abatement.”

What has been done so far?

The dilemma is one Baptist leaders had hoped to resolve by the time they moved.

Over the years long planning process they’ve met with neighbors as well as city, county and legislative leaders to identify the community’s wants and needs for the property and used their input to create a redevelopment plan.

That plan, announced last year, was approved by the Pensacola City Council and included selling the old campus to developers who would commit to building mix-used developments of multi-family and single-family homes and spaces for restaurants, retailers and social services.

It also called for the city to reopen old streets that were closed when the hospital was built in the 1950s and create a new 2.5-acre city park that would center around the historic Kupfiran Home.  

Baptist went to market with the property last summer saying it would evaluate offers and give priority to those that were in line with the redevelopment plan, but the offers weren’t what they hoped.

“What we found when we went to the market was, we only got offers for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit financed rental buildings and only on land that didn’t require significant demo,” Grove said.

That many rental units aren’t part of the city-approved, mixed-use redevelopment plan – which was intended to create opportunities for homeownership – and neither was a piece-meal development approach with multiple builders.

Baptist turned down those offers and instead selected The Paces Foundation to redevelop almost 11 acres of the 51-acre campus and build 214 affordable, rental housing units for low-income families and seniors.  

The nonprofit’s most recent work is the 2020 construction of Brownsville Manor, an 88-unit affordable housing development for seniors.

“They were the closest to the three-development vision and they made every change we or the city asked them to,” said Grove.  

The construction project is on hold, though, while The Paces Foundation applies for state financing. The nonprofit sought low-income housing tax credits for the project, one for 4% to build 112 affordable multi-family units and another for 9% for a 102-unit affordable senior housing development.

Grove said despite strong applications, the Florida Housing Finance Authority turned down The Paces Foundation’s requests for low-income tax credits. They are applying again, and Baptist extended their contract in hopes the next applications will be successful.

“They both scored very highly, but were not selected,” said Grove. “Very rarely are projects selected on their first year for the financing, but now they are applying again this year, so we are hopeful that those will still go through and that would be rental housing.”

Out with the old is expensive

Baptist has been working closely with the city of Pensacola to clear the way for redevelopment of the property.

Pensacola is already involved in supporting The Paces Foundation’s affordable housing development applications to the state and is committed to buying the historic Kupfrian House as a city park if the affordable housing plan goes through.

While the city is looking to acquire all or part of the old campus to put it in the “best hands possible,” city leaders don’t want to be on the hook for multi-million-dollar demolition and removal costs.

There are more opportunities to fund those costs if the land is publicly owned, not privately owned.

Last July, the city won $5 million to aid in the demolition of the old Baptist Hospital as part of its Rebuild Florida Hometown Revitalization Program grant award from the state.

“I know the biggest issue is, of course, the towers, but the mayor is working with Baptist to come up with a solution to try to see what we can do,” said Pensacola City Council member Delarian Wiggins. “It’s just a process because this is a big move for Baptist and this is a big move for our community, so we want to make sure that we’re doing everything right and this is an opportunity for us to get it right.”

Baptist Moving:Pensacola looks to acquire part or all of old Baptist Hospital to put it in ‘best hands possible’

State grant funds cannot be spent on privately owned property, and the city makes clear in its grant application it would be looking to acquire the property to be able to use the grant funds.

According to the application, the city’s goal is to prevent blight and foster revitalization by transforming the campus with “attainable housing” through mixed-use development with retail, commercial and residential buildings.

The city would maintain the property until it finds developers who would enter binding agreements to build out the campus under the city’s goals. To be awarded the money, the city must still enter into a grant agreement and that hasn’t happened yet.

Grove said Baptist and the city are now discussing the possibility of a donation agreement or memorandum of understanding between them that they can use to seek more funding opportunities.

She is hopeful that together they’ll find solutions and assures those who are concerned that they are all committed to keeping the property from becoming an eyesore and moving toward redevelopment.

“We are grateful for the city thinking so boldly about this opportunity,” said Grove. “I’m talking about it’s huge for our community and I’m excited about that kind of leadership and perspective on what can be.”

The old Baptist campus is also in Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May’s district. He said the hospital has served a critical role in the community as a hub for medical care and support for the neighborhood.

To see the hospital leave without a plan in place is worrying people in his district who live nearby and he said the county is willing to contribute financial help, such as possibly using Community Block Grant monies.

“There have been a lot of good faith efforts and I would want to continue those good faith efforts and give the citizens some assurance that it’s going to be OK and we’re not going to lose the character of the neighborhood and the services they provided,” said May, adding that moving as quickly as possible matters.

“How do we quickly bring stability to this neighborhood? Baptist connects the city and the county. It’s an anchor for a poor neighborhood and so Baptist is is very important and what goes there is very important … so, whatever we can do as a county, we’re going to try and do it.”

Neighbors Townsend and Cannada-Wynn hope the city commits to taking the lead on the redevelopment of the old Baptist campus. They believe it’s the way to ensure the best outcome for the neighborhood and the west side of the city.

“I think it’s a very difficult position for the city of Pensacola to be in,” said Cannada-Wynn, “but again, when and where does the city of Pensacola have so much opportunity to gain over 50 acres land to be able to make a big difference in this side of town?”

Baptist will be moving into its new $650 million dollar facility by the end of the month. More details on the move are expected to be released next week.

Once the three towers and hospital are empty, they will be fenced to prevent people from getting inside the buildings.

Everyone agrees, at that point, they want to see them gone as soon as possible.

“The worst thing that could happen is we have a fenced-up building with no plan,” said Cannada-Wynn. “As far as I’m concerned, it would be devastating to my neighborhood, to my community.”

Townsend noted, “It could be an excellent opportunity to increase and make Pensacola whole for everybody. It’s just hard to get in the money for up here.”

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