DDRB expresses concerns about proposed high rise on Southbank

DDRB expresses concerns about proposed high rise on Southbank
Ventures Development Group’s proposed apartment complex near the Aetna Building on the Southbank calls for 10 stories of apartments on top of a four-story parking garage.

It was back to the drawing board, so to speak, for the Ventures Development Group which had at first requested that the Downtown Development Review Board grant conceptual approval during its meeting Oct. 20 for the developer’s planned 250-unit high-rise apartment building on land adjacent to the Aetna Building and the railroad tracks on the Southbank.

Recognizing the board had issues with more than one aspect of the proposed development at 841 Prudential Drive, which lies near the railroad tracks and the entrance to the Acosta Bridge, Attorney Steve Diebenow of Driver McAfee Peek & Hawthorne, who represents the developer, requested a discussion of the approval be taken off the table so that a workshop to discuss the intricacies of the project with the board could be scheduled for a future date.

The estimated $40 to $50 million project, which is being developed by Ventures Development Group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, proposes to build a 10-story apartment building atop four stories of parking garage on the site, part of which is now used as a surface parking lot which wraps around the Aetna Building.

A rendering of the high-rise apartment building which is proposed to be built on land next to the Aetna Building on the Southbank by Ventures Development Group.

A rendering of the high-rise apartment building which is proposed to be built on land next to the Aetna Building on the Southbank by Ventures Development Group.

If accepted in its present state, the building will offer 250 apartments including studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, as well as a fitness center, club room and sky lounge, according to plans presented to the city. Developers received approval to increase the number of units to 275 by the Downtown Development Authority in its meeting Oct. 18.

Ventures Development Group currently holds a contract on the 2.9 acre Southbank parcel, which is owned by GV-IP Jacksonville Owner LLC. The DIA’s approval restricts the closing on the property to within nine months and requires the developers get building permits within 18 months and beginning vertical construction within 24 months. If these requirements are not adhered to, the group will lose its development rights.

In 2005, the Hines Tower, a 43-story mixed-use condominium development was planned for the site but was never built due to unfavorable real estate conditions in the following years.

Although the DDRB decided to defer formal discussion of the project until after the workshop, DDRB members and staff voiced some of their concerns about the project during the meeting.

Jim Klement, DDRB development coordinator, said that in delving into the new application, DDRB staff reviewed the approval for the Hines project and noticed several parts that were similar within its development agreement which today seemed problematic. He said staff was considering Ventures proposal in light of the city’s community redevelopment area downtown master plan, the city’s redevelopment goals for increasing the “urban lifestyle” downtown, and its general policies of incorporating healthy living within its design criteria.

“Part of the overview that staff immediately noted was that there appeared to be a lot of parts that potentially, if the conceptual was granted without good review of those moving parts, may give an improper green light to the applicant to move forward with the development,” Klement said, adding if these concerns were not considered, site juxtaposition, relocation or redesign might become necessary.

“We were hesitant to offer a recommendation of approval with conditions because those conditions dealt with some setback issues, some pedestrian engagement issues which could very aggressively cause relocation or redesign of the structure,” he said.

While recognizing the challenges of such a “complicated and chopped up site,” many of the DDRB members agreed with staff, expressing concern about setbacks from the Riverwalk, walkability especially in regards to neighboring Baptist Hospital and the Aetna Building as well as how a building with such “imposing structure” would impinge on or energize the existing Riverwalk. Also discussed was how the structure would look from the river and how it would mesh visually with the adjacent properties.

DDRB member Craig Davisson noted the project would be the “front door to downtown” and a “major billboard,” and suggested the developer study what Baptist Hospital had done with its river frontage.

DDRB member Joseph Loretta said he was interested in knowing how the current lease agreement with the Aetna Building to provide 100 spaces for the employees that work there would impact the project’s overall parking requirements.

Loretta’s colleague, Rafael Caldera, said he had no trouble with the idea of a big building eventually resting on the site but recognized that the parking lot was “complicated” and that there were numerous other issues with the project.

“This will be an iconic building on that corner. It needs to be an entrance for downtown,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson

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