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Walt O'Shea
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jan. 20, 201512:00 PM EST

Emotional time for Palencia's managing director, whose project is coming to an end after 20 years

by: Carole Hawkins

It’s been 20 years since Walt O’Shea has done anything but create Palencia, a master-planned community north of St. Augustine.

He’s getting ready to launch another neighborhood of estate-sized, wooded lots with an eye, like always, toward delivering a best-in-class lifestyle.

But this will be Palencia’s last one.

O’Shea, its managing director, is eager to talk about the work in front of him, but less so about what happens when he’s done.

He compares the enormity of it to his son getting ready to leave for college, a thought he also hasn’t completely processed.

“It’s been a major life’s work for me personally,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in something for this long. … It’s a very emotional place.”

The final neighborhood is named Costa del Sol, and like a magician’s act leading to a grand finale, some of the best acreage in Palencia has been saved for it.

Setting up the moment has been four estate-lot neighborhoods to the south and north with beautiful views of the Intracoastal. But, O’Shea says, the views from Costa del Sol are the best.

Palencia is a golf-course community. But it’s designed with natural wooded buffers between the course and neighborhoods, giving homeowners and golfers the feeling of a pastoral area.

O’Shea said Costa del Sol will be one of the few, if not only, neighborhoods in Northeast Florida where homes are being built on true estate lots.

As the industry has trended toward smaller and smaller lot sizes, sometimes whole communities are built out with lots no bigger than 43 to 63 feet wide, he said.

In Costa del Sol, they will range from 90 to 100 feet wide and 180 to 300 feet deep.

If Palencia’s last neighborhood is unusual among its peers, the entire community has been iconic.

Before Palencia, Northeast Florida had produced other master-planned communities.

But, none had such a strong mix of amenities and retail in combination with homes, said Ed Lehman, director of planning and development for the Northeast Florida Regional Council.

Had Palencia not done so, it most certainly would have been received as urban sprawl. Instead, it became a precursor for other communities.

Terrell Newberry, broker/owner of Century 21 Atkins Realty, agreed.

“Palencia is a destination, not just another subdivision,” he said. “It set the stage for other developments between Jacksonville and St. Augustine along U.S. 1. Think of it like an early Nocatee.”

Back in 1996 when Palencia was first planned, the neighboring community of Nocatee wasn’t even an idea. The Davis family intended to keep that property for generations.

In Ponte Vedra, estate-lot neighborhoods were nearing the last stages of development. Demand for high-end homes was continuing to the south and east of Jacksonville.

Where would Downtown’s executives live next?

Texas-based Hines, Palencia’s developer, typically built skyscrapers and other large commercial projects. But the company saw potential in the parcel that would become Palencia.

There were no other large tracts of land from Amelia Island to St. Augustine along the Intracoastal that had a mature hardwood tree cover.

Other properties were descendants of years of timbering or plantation clearing.

The developer’s vision was to create something environmentally and socially special in Palencia, and to elevate the standard of the typical Jacksonville development.

From day one, Palencia’s staff walked every lot and hand-marked trees for preservation before builders started on houses.

The company designed an environmentally sensitive stormwater system and provided natural gas utilities.

Another goal for Palencia was to provide residents with more opportunities to interact with one another.

Hines integrated walking trails, bike paths and pocket parks into the plan to encourage the kind of spontaneous contact that engenders a sense of community.

With its golf course, clubhouse, pool and tennis courts, Palencia would be an active-living community. But, the focus would also be on creating best-in-class amenities.

Area high school students want to swim at Palencia because it has the fastest pool, O’Shea said.

Tennis players want to play at Palencia because it has some of the best tennis courts.

Master-planned communities struggle to attract retail. Here Palencia has done better than others by planning commercial frontage along U.S. 1, in addition to its village center.

While some homebuyers feel Palencia still falls short on retail, others see the advantage of living off the beaten path, and still within driving distance of major shopping, said Betsy Picot, of Watson Realty.

The person who buys in Palencia is someone who is looking for something special, not just a run-of-the-mill subdivision, she said.

“It’s an upscale community, with being an exclusivist community,” she said. “I know people who’ve moved from other wealthy communities who’ve found Palencia to be very refreshing.”

As for Palencia’s legacy to real estate in Northeast Florida, O’Shea said it will take more hindsight to be sure what that will be.

But, he does have a sense of the level at which it has already succeeded.

“I think one of the most satisfying things for me is that many of the people who first bought here back in 2000 and 2001 have since bought their second and third home in Palencia,” he said. “It not the four walls of the building that make it their home. It’s the community.”

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