Adaptive Reuse: Orlando's Church Street Station
What happens when city after city makes the same expensive mistake in their quest to revitalize downtown? Here's a look at how another failed 1980s urban retail marketplace was converted into a new use: Orlando's Church Street Station.
In Downtown Jacksonville, Jacksonville Landing festival marketplace is on the verge of being demolished without a redevelopment strategy in place.
In Northeast Florida, the City of Jacksonville recently spent $18 million to acquire its 1980s era festival marketplace and evict thirty remaining retailers and restaurants, in hopes of demolishing the building without a solid plan to do anything with the iconic waterfront property. When asked about considering the possibility of adaptive reuse, the City of Jacksonville’s Brian Hughes had this to say:
The structure was not designed to be anything more than the simplest steel and concrete construction for the purpose of housing a 1980s-style shopping mall,”
It is amazing to see how one property in public hands can become a city’s trash can be another in private ownership can become a city’s treasure. Here is a story about the rise, fall and rebirth of a place not designed to be anything more than the simplest steel and concrete construction for the purpose of housing a 1980s-style shopping mall: Orlando’s Church Street Station.
“Life is either a great adventure or nothing at all. I don’t build restaurants. I try to build institutions.”
Those words Robert James Snegosky (Bob) Snow used to describe his urban redevelopment success stories during the early 1970s. After hitting it big in Pensacola with the establishment of Seville Quarter, in 1972 Snow announced plans to develop an entertainment-shopping complex in Downtown Orlando that would include a mix of renovated dilapidated buildings and new infill.
“I couldn’t borrow a nickel in this town (for Church Street). They all thought I was nuts. Downtown Pensacola used to be full of winos and boarded-up stores and I had turned it around. But people kept telling me, ‘Have you seen it?’ All they saw was the decay.”
Church Street came online to great fanfare with the 1974 opening of Rosie O’Grady’s and the 1982 opening of Cheyenne Saloon & Opera House. Expanding to include the Bumby Arcade and an 80,000 square foot retail and dining complex called the Exchange, in 1985 Church Street Station drew 1.7 million visitors, making it the fourth-largest tourist attraction in the state after Walt Disney World, Sea World and Busch Gardens.
The first sign of decline came in the form of increased competition with the 1989 opening of Walt Disney World’s Pleasure Island. Irked by Walt Disney World opening Pleasure Island to compete, Snow sold his remaining interest in Church Street Station and the Exchange to focus on a new venture in Las Vegas called Winchester Station. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel Snow stated, “I love Orlando and I love Church Street Station but there’s a time to get on the stage and a time to get off.”
Despite a 24,000 square foot addition of a Presidential Ballroom in 1994, by 1998 annual attendance had fallen to 550,000. Things continued to get worse with the 1999 opening of Universal CityWalk. In 2002, Lou Pearlman, known for launching Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, purchased Church Street Station, vowing to restore the largely vacant complex to its former glory. Pearlman planned invest $9 million in the renovation of the former 136,000 square foot, three-story festival marketplace making it the headquarters for his music, TV and film operations. In a heavily incentive-laden deal Pearlman also made promises to fill the complex with nightly concerts, outdoor street events, retail shops, restaurants and open a museum dedicated to Florida music. Instead in 2007, Pearlman was arrested and indicted for running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, triggering a foreclosure lawsuit against Church Street.
A special event at Church Street Station in 2015. (Church Street Station Facebook Page)
This led to developer Cameron Kuhn acquiring the property for $34.1 million at bankruptcy court auction. A year later, several businesses opened including the Cheyenne Saloon by Bob Snow, Bliss Ultra Night Club, Brick and Fire Pizza and Wine Company, Ceviche Tapas Restaurant and Bar, The Dessert Lady and Hamburger Mary’s. Despite the apparent rebirth of Church Street Station, Kuhn’s financial empire crumbled leading to him losing control of his Church Street properties to a Boston-based lender in foreclosure. During this time, Kuhn also lost several properties in Downtown Jacksonville, including the Barnett Bank Building, the Laura Trio and the site of a proposed Hyatt Place hotel preparing to break ground soon. Kuhn eventually filed for personal bankruptcy in 2017.
Despite the struggles during downtown’s darkest hours, acquiring the property for millions and razing without a redevelopment plan was never a serious option on the table for the City of Orlando. As a result, as the revitalization of downtown has hit its stride, so has the adaptive reuse possibilities for the former retail and entertainment complex that now finds itself surrounded by 65,000 daytime employees, 18,000 residents and within walking distance of a SunRail commuter rail station (opened in 2014) and Amway Center (home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic since 2010).
In 2017, Dallas-based Lincoln Propery Company purchased the 39,417-square foot southern piece of Church Street Station for $5.5 million. Lincoln plans to incorporate the property into their $81 million, 26-story Tremont Plaza mixed-use tower project currently under construction next door.
In 2018, developers Robert Yeager and Digvijay Gaekwad purchased the northern piece of Church Street Station for $14.2 million with plans to enchance incubator-like activity already underway in the former Exchange festival marketplace, which filled up with tech companies in 2014. Their purchase also included a second Church Street Station building already occupied by Lion’s Pride Soccer Pub & Grille and Cevíche Tapas Bar & Restaurant.
“These are beautiful buildings, and we will focus on filling them up with quality tenants,” said new owner Digvijay “Danny” Gaekwad, who made the recent purchase in partnership with Orlando developer Rob Yeager. “This is the perfect place to start something new. It’s easy to find, and it’s iconic in my heart. I lived in Orlando in the 1980s, when Church Street was big.”
Source: Orlando Sentinel - 2/18/18 - Church Street Exchange sells as part of $14.2M deal
Furthermore, in late 2018, the nearby historic Church Street Train Depot was acquired by developers Rob and Joe Nunziata. Running an online campaign called MakeOrlandoGreat.com, residents were allowed to vote on the top retail choices they’d like to see. The biggest response received was the adaptive reuse of the space as a food hall, similar to a Chelsea Market in NYC or Amature Works in Tampa.