DDRB grants conceptual approval for proposed high rise on Southbank

DDRB grants conceptual approval for proposed high rise on Southbank
Rendering of a 13-story, 300-unit apartment building proposed for the Southbank adjacent to the Aetna Building.

The Jacksonville Downtown Development Review Board granted its conceptual approval with eight conditions for a proposed 13-story, 300-unit apartment building on riverfront property adjacent to the Aetna Building and railroad tracks on the Southbank.

In a meeting held Jan. 19 in the Ed Ball Building, the board gave its unanimous conceptual approval of a “Master Develop-ment Plan” for a project located at 841 Prudential Drive, presented by Ventures Development Group of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The developers will meet with the board again at a future time for final approval, and if successful, the project could become the first high-rise to be built on the Southbank since 2008.

Ventures Development had approached the board for conceptual approval during its meeting Oct. 20, but heeded the board’s suggestion that it discuss further the intricacies of the project during a workshop Nov. 17. At that time, the board’s main concern with the $40- to $50-million apartment complex had to do with its setbacks from the Riverwalk, “imposing” structural design – particularly its “brutal” façade facing the river – and its walkability, especially in regards to neighboring Baptist Medical Center and the Aetna Building next door.

During the Jan. 19 meeting, Steve Diebenow of Driver McAfee Peek & Hawthorne represented the Ventures Development, while representatives from the architectural firm Niles Bolton Associates and the engineering firm Connelly and Wicker, Inc. were on hand to answer questions.

Ventures Development Group holds a contract on the 2.9-acre parcel, which is owned by GV-IP Jacksonville Owner LLC. The parcel was previously the site of the proposed Hines Tower, a 43-story mixed-use condominium development, for which the board granted conceptual approval in 2005. The Hines Project was never built due to unfavorable real estate conditions in following years.

The proposed building will stand parallel to the railroad tracks and will be accessed from Prudential Drive. The building will tower approximately 180 feet, and will include 300 multi-family apartments, a pool, riverfront courtyard and a series of townhouses facing the river. Amenities include a fitness center and club room, leasing office, 59 surface parking spaces and a parking garage housing 300 spaces. A proposed dock/water taxi station is also included in the plans.

During his opening statement before the board, Diebenow pointed out there is no public access to the site, which is currently being used as a surface parking lot. On the west side of the project, adjacent to the Aetna Building, there is a city easement, for the public to access the 8-foot-strip of Riverwalk in front of the Aetna Building, he said.

Years ago, during the Hines Project, an easement for public access to the site was negotiated but never executed, and there is no public access to the project’s site today, although a 12-foot Riverwalk and an 8-foot sidewalk adjacent to the railroad tracks had been planned with the previous project. “Those easements and access points were never solidified or ever recorded,” said Diebenow.

A development agreement for the marina developer to provide those improvements does exist, he said, but is not able to be executed because the submerged land lease has expired and the marina developer does not have control of the project site, he said.

“There is no way for the public to get access to this property except through the process we’re going through today,” said Diebenow. “I’m not sure we made this clear at the last presentation. In addition to the variances we’re are seeking, one thing the developer is offering in return is public access, which we know is a priority of the City, the DDRB and the DIA (Downtown Investment Authority),” he said, noting his client is willing to provide greater access than what was previously approved by the DDRB for the Hines project.

Ventures Development is proposing to build a 20-foot Riverwalk in front of its building and a 12-foot wide pedestrian path adjacent to the railroad tracks. Five feet of landscaping will be next to the building, making for a 25-foot setback from the riverfront bulkhead, Diebenow said.

The Riverwalk will be divided between a 12-foot upper tier and an 8-foot lower tier, all of which will be open to the public, he said.

At the suggestion of the board during its November workshop, the developers converted all 90-degree parking adjacent to the railroad tracks into parallel parking, enabling a 12-foot pedestrian path with 4 feet of landscaping on either side to run alongside the tracks.

“These modifications allowed us to increase our unit count to 300,” said Diebenow. The prior proposal offered 275 apartments including studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, a fitness center, club room and sky lounge.

In its Jan. 18 meeting, the DIA allocated 300 units to the project as well as a REV grant to help the developers to pay for the improvements and generate the returns re-quired to ensure the project is viable, he said.

The new design for the parking garage requires a deviation, but will work from a marketing perspective, he added.

Dramatic changes were also made to the building’s outer façade. Townhouse units now face the river, and a public courtyard garden space encompasses 30 percent of the building’s river frontage, he said, noting the setback from the bulkhead to the part of the building behind the courtyard is 43 feet, while the other 70 percent of the building stands 25 feet away from the river’s edge. A “green” screen will separate the garden seating from the parking garage.

“We will use the same materials that are used on the other parts of the Riverwalk for the pedestrian path,” said Diebenow. “People will identify this as part of the Riverwalk in general.”

“This is night and day from what we talked about in the workshop,” said DDRB Chairman Frederick Jones. “This is a great project. We are looking forward to it.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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