Developers of residential infill projects rise to challenge

Developers of residential infill projects rise to challenge
One of several models of Craftsman-style homes under construction at James and Green Streets in Riverside.

With the historic neighborhoods almost at capacity, remaining lots are becoming increasingly scarce – yet the demand to live in these neighborhoods continues to rise. One antidote to the problem is residential infill, but it comes with its own set of challenges.

It can be difficult to locate and acquire potential infill property, as owners are often reluctant to sell. When they do decide to sell, the price is high and the property goes very quickly. Furthermore, planning and zoning can become a drawn-out, complicated process.

Brian Gabree of Red Clover Realty specializes in new construction in Jacksonville’s historic districts. Helping his builders find lots in these areas is not an easy feat.

“Because the infill lots are so rare, they are very difficult to find. Then when you find them, owners don’t want to sell or they want a premium,” he said. “And because it’s such a rarity to find a lot, when you build a home, it goes very quickly.”

In late September, Gabree, together with other developers and builders, held an open house to show eight new homes that were built in historic Riverside. Also, he has helped his builders acquire 12 additional lots in the area.

“People want to be in Riverside/Avondale area and the 5 Points and Park and King Street areas. It’s highly walkable – there are plenty of restaurants, pubs for a drink after work, there is the Cummer Museum, Publix, Starbucks and more,” Gabree said. “People want to step outside their door and be able to walk or get on their bikes and have everything right there – that’s why Riverside is so desirable.”

Not too long ago, Gabree helped a builder purchase a 40- by 275-foot lot for $170,000. Today, a 50- by 100-foot lot sells for $120,000 to $130,000.

“Since the demand is going to stay the same and supply will go down, the prices will continue to go up,” he said.

‘Pocket’ neighborhoods underway

Not too far from the Park and King Streets retail corridor, a new development is underway in what some refer to as a “pocket neighborhood” within historic Riverside.

Adam Merrill, president of John Merrill Homes, is putting 17 new Craftsman-style homes on 3.5 acres at James and Green Streets, east of the CSX railroad tracks, re-purposing land which was once used by the City of Jacksonville as a maintenance storage site. Merrill, who began construction earlier this year, is also building six similar homes on Ernest Street, which are already pre-sold.

Just a few blocks away, another new pocket neighborhood community is in the works for the north half of an entire block along College Street, and the development plan has been tweaked several times since its inception. Alex Sifakas of JWB Homes came up with the concept, which has been revised to better suit the surrounding area.

The original plan for “Cottages on College” was to build 13 “skinny” homes on 26-foot-wide lots, but after months of working with Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), they came up with a different concept and decided to center the residences around a common courtyard.

“We switched gears to the courtyard concept, which was something that was historically built in Springfield and on Dancy Street, but hasn’t been built in about 100 years,” said Sifakas.  “It’s something I never would have thought of, but it’s those kinds of conversations that yield a better project at the end of the day.” 

The revised development will consist of 19 single-family homes built on 20 lots, with one lot being developed into a pocket park/greenspace. Ten of the homes will have two-car garages, while the other nine homes will provide two parking spaces on site. The homes will be centered around a shared courtyard space – a 19-foot by 360-foot easement running the entire length of the rear of each of the 20 lots. Homeowners will share ownership and use of this area.

“People want to live in an urban, walkable environment and can’t get that from traditional developments outside the core. Our core neighborhoods have been going through a rebirth the last 20 years and we’re running out of lots and land,” he said. “It has to do with demand. A large percentage of the population doesn’t want to live in a subdivision 40 minutes from where they work. They want to live in an area that has culture, where they can walk to a bar or a restaurant.”

According to Sifakas, infill lots that are already platted pass through zoning and planning relatively easily, but otherwise, it becomes more complicated.

“It takes a lot of conversations with the community. If they come out in opposition, it’s not going to work. When we consider what they want, we end up with a better product and it will be better for the neighborhood,” he said. “I think people see the value of infill development – taking something like a blighted or vacant lot and turning it into a huge asset. It will bring families and tax revenue, and it will bring more businesses there – which is what I really want.”

Community “conversation” includes working with RAP, who supports the “courtyard” concept, while recognizing it is not a historic pattern and would not be appropriate to other locations in the district.

Ryan Davis of Piper Homes recently completed two homes on St. Johns Avenue on a large parcel that had an existing home and will be building two more on that parcel. The original home dates back to 1912 and was built for Philip Stockton May, a descendant of the Stockton family that came to Jacksonville in the 1890s and helped to develop Avondale.

“We found the property through an MLS that had it listed with a realtor. The idea was to have two homes facing St. Johns Avenue and the other two facing Riverside Avenue,” he said. “We created a central alleyway between all four homes to hide the garages behind the properties – it was a nod to the traditional layout of the neighborhood that utilized alleys off the streets.”

Davis worked with RAP on the project to make sure it would fit in with the historical aspects of the neighborhood. The project went smoothly, but planning and zoning was a bit more complicated.

“It was a little more strenuous than if it was just a finished lot that we would have bought from a developer,” said Davis. “The City takes a little bit of a harder look at the drainage and grading and everything.”

Twenty lots, with 19 homes and community greenspace, are planned for College Street between Willowbranch Avenue and Rubel Street.

Twenty lots, with 19 homes and community greenspace, are planned for College Street between Willowbranch Avenue and Rubel Street.


‘Groundbreaking’ development led way in Brooklyn

One of the first infill developments in Jacksonville was 220 Riverside, a multi-family housing complex in the Brooklyn area. Christian Harden, principal at NAI Hallmark, was instrumental in bringing it to fruition.

“It was being done all across the country, in every major metropolitan area. People want to live, work and play in a neighborhood where they don’t have to be dependent on an automobile,” said Harden. “The 220 Riverside project was really groundbreaking because it proved that there was a demand for this type of housing in the marketplace – sometimes exceeding $2 per square foot. I think there was always demand, but we had a supply issue. This was the first of its kind – Jacksonville is a suburban market, nobody had offered that kind of project in Riverside.” 

Finding sufficient-sized properties to build multi-housing developments such as Riverside 220 is a common problem and one of the most exasperating parts of the process.

“The tough part about infill is that it’s difficult to assemble a property big enough to build scale for multi-family housing,” Harden said. “There is a good chance you’ll end up with a person who doesn’t want to sell the one parcel that is needed to pull off the development.”

Though Riverside 220 was conceived and built based on the theory that young, urban professionals wanted to be close to downtown and all the amenities, the reality has proven to be different from what was expected. Nearly half of the residents are baby boomers.

“Home ownership is down in Jacksonville; we are below the state average. We are around 61 percent and the state average is closer to 70 percent. People do not necessarily subscribe to the American dream of home ownership – they want the flexibility offered by multi-family housing,” said Harden. “Baby boomers also want to experience the culture, entertainment and environment associated with projects like 220 Riverside.”

As such, a new multi-family housing development next door to 220 Riverside, Vista Brooklyn project, is in the works. The 308-unit complex is geared toward baby boomers with disposable income.

The 10-story, all concrete building will include a 10th floor clubhouse, infinity pool, outdoor kitchens, elevated finishes in the apartment units, a pet grooming salon and an elevated dog walking park. Additionally there will be approximately 13,000 square feet of retail along Riverside Avenue, a structured parking garage with controlled access and entrances to the tower on each floor of the garage, and dedicated spaces for retail parking on ground floor of parking garage, according to Keith Goldfaden of NAI Hallmark. The targeted groundbreaking date is October or November.

Another infill apartment project, which is nearing completion, is the $42-million RiverVue on St. Johns Avenue. The first of three developments by Chance Partners LLC in Jacksonville, the 228-unit complex includes the tower formerly known as Commander Apartments. Seven additional buildings plus a parking garage are being built on the site of the former St. Johns Village.

“Infill development is something I’m really passionate about. We should focus our efforts on existing neighborhoods where we have existing infrastructure,” said Harden, who lives in Avondale. “I think it’s very positive. Density is healthy and allows us to make better use of our retail areas.”

By Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

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