Hot demand for commercial real estate in ‘hip’ historic districts

Commercial real estate in Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods is in demand– and hard to find.

Merchants, restaurateurs and other business people looking for space face challenges. Vacancies are scarce in the long-established neighborhoods of San Marco, Riverside and Avondale as well as in new developments such as Brooklyn Station and 220 Riverside.

“Commercial follows residential, and residential is as hot as it’s been there in seven or eight years,” said Robert Warren, president and broker, Warren & Company. “There’s a movement around the country to come back to the central core. People want to live where there is life and activity and restaurants to walk to.”

In addition, Warren said a continually improving economy coupled with low interest rates are encouraging people—many who are experienced baby boomers wanting to work for themselves—to open businesses. “These areas have become some of the best in Jacksonville, particularly the last 12 months,” he said. “Demand for commercial real estate in cool hip little areas like San Marco, Riverside, 5 Points and Brooklyn increased significantly.”

Although the majority of businesses in the Historic Districts are locally owned and strongly supported by the locals who frequent them, some national chains—such as the Hair Cuttery and Corner Bakery Cafe at Brooklyn Station—offer diverse products and services.

“Supporting local business is something we like to do,” said Brooklyn Station spokesman Eric Davidson, communication manager, Regency Centers. “We like to do a strong mix. Each enhances the other based on needs.”

That Unity Plaza, which has no weekend rentals available from March through Memorial Day, indicates how nonprofits, too, energize the district and support its commercial establishments. Since its fall opening, the urban park and amphitheater, a public-private partnership, has hosted monthly festivals as well as activities sponsored by local nonprofits to raise awareness of their missions.

“We are completely coming alive, surrounded by food and beverage,” said Jennifer Jones Murray, executive director of Unity Plaza, praising Sbraga & Co. and Hobnob, new restaurants at the adjacent 200 Riverside. “In the Historic District and Urban Core, relationships drive a highly individualized and very artistic experience. Jacksonville is on fire with talent and we see this individualized style, especially in food and beverage in Brooklyn.”

Steady growth

In contrast to the commercial explosion in Brooklyn, which underwent a dramatic transformation from one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, San Marco’s business district has been growing steadily for decades.

“San Marco is one of the original shopping districts in Jacksonville, evolving from gas stations and grocery stores to upscale restaurants, bars, theaters and fabulous boutiques. San Marco Bookstore and San Marco Theatre have been there for years,” said Anita Vining, president, San Marco Merchants Association, and Realtor, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Network Realty. “It brings people from all points of Jacksonville in large part because of independent boutiques that offer more upscale merchandise and personal service.”

She said the thriving business corridors that extend from San Marco Boulevard to Hendricks Avenue all the way to Lakewood are filling up. Particularly in San Marco Square, vacancies are rare.

“You can’t find anything in San Marco Square unless somebody moves out,” agreed Warren Tyre, broker principal, Commercial Real Estate Solutions, and a San Marco resident. “It’s still a seller’s market, or owner’s market, because if you’ve got something precious, it costs more.”

Tyre said the lure is all about the aura—“the friendliness, the acceptance, being able to get whatever you want, good food, interesting clothing, places to pick up this and that, and still be close to home. And it’s safe.”

No empty storefronts

Likewise at Park and King, empty buildings are scarce. District 14 Councilman Jim Love, president of the Park and King Merchants Association, credits the city’s multi-million dollar Town Center Initiative in 2005 with turning the decaying area around. The project that included upgrading drainage, streets and landscaping enhanced a business district that continues to thrive.

Examples include Kickbacks Gastropub’s expansion a few years ago, Burger King’s recent remodeling and Il Desco, a locally owned Italian restaurant that opened in the former Pele’s Wood Fire location at Park and King streets.

“The attraction is the vibrancy of the walkable neighborhood,” said Love. “You can window shop, get a tattoo or a hamburger…and Kickbacks has the most variety of beer in Northeast Florida.” Love sees that commercial momentum on Stockton Street, too.

You won’t find empty storefronts in Avondale, either. “As soon as something goes, something else moves in,” said Dianne Garcia, president of the Shoppes of Avondale Merchants Association and co-owner of jAshley Boutique with her daughter, Ashley Holt, for nearly 15 years.

“The majority of shoppers are local, but a good percentage is from out of town,” she said. “When you go to a new city, you want to go somewhere that is unique and you look up the historic areas. We get a lot of that.”

“The past few years have been great here. There are not a lot of vacancies,” concurred Allan DeVault, speaking of Riverside’s trendy 5 Points area. “There’s a lot of demand to be in the neighborhood. People come from Fernandina Beach to our restaurants.”

A managing partner of Black Sheep Restaurant, DeVault is a member and past president of 5 Points Merchants Association. He attributes 5 Points’ popularity largely to its diversity of local and national businesses and its strong neighborhood advocate groups such as Riverside Avondale Preservation.

“And Brooklyn, a healthy walk away, can only make it busier for us,” he said.

The commercial spots at Brooklyn’s 220 Riverside residential/retail complex are filled with Sbraga & Co., Hobnob and Brixx, according to David Auchter, executive vice president and COO of NAI Hallmark Partners, one of several parties that executed the community plan to redevelop Brooklyn. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said of the current new activity plus what’s in the works, including the new YMCA, a Gate station and a hotel. “We see Forest Street as the new gateway to downtown Jacksonville.”

‘New urbanism’

From Riverside to San Marco, AccuBuild has been involved in at least 25 historic preservation and/or commercial projects. “We feel we are pioneers there,” said founder Mark Rubin who sees the focus moving more toward local businesses. Currently, AccuBuild is working on local projects at Stockton and Oak streets and at LaSalle Street and San Marco Boulevard.

“There’s been a lot of pent-up demand from people wanting to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams but capital markets have been closed, so people had to defer their dreams,” Rubin said. “Now we see them coming on line.”

Traci Jenks, senior director, Cushman & Wakefield, sees “new urbanism” at play in the commercial excitement. “It’s not technically downtown, but neighborhood people can walk to shops and restaurants where they work, live and play. Not a big mall, it’s more a hometown kind of feel. People really want to embrace those local operators.”

With few vacancies throughout the Historic District and with Riverside Avenue filling up, Jenks predicts that older buildings on Park Street will be renovated. “We will see creative things with more distressed buildings that have been vacant for years,” she said. “People are going to figure out how to make them work.”

By Lorrie DeFrank
Resident Community News

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