Historic San Marco church to sell land for residential development

Historic San Marco church to sell land for residential development
Andy Allen, Bill Ware, and George Leone, developers of Park Place at San Marco

Dramatic change is coming to the campus of one of the oldest religious congregations in historic San Marco.

South Jacksonville Presbyterian, a San Marco church that has been an important part of Jacksonville’s expansion south of the St. Johns River since the early 1900s, is downsizing. In mid-July, church trustees signed an agreement with Harbert Realty Services of Birmingham, Alabama, to sell three-quarters of their campus, which lies at 2137 Hendricks Ave., so a developer can build Park Place at San Marco, a 143-unit residential complex and adjacent parking garage.

“The property hasn’t sold yet; we’ve just signed an agreement, but we haven’t closed on the deal. The agreement is in place, but they have a due diligence time on the property. We might not close until 2020,” said Jeff King of San Marco, president of the church’s board of trustees.

Bill Ware, a San Marco resident and vice president of development for Harbert Realty Services, said his firm will close on the property after it receives City approval for rezoning into a new PUD and estimated that process could take between four and six months. He said Harbert Realty submitted the rezoning application at the end of July 2019.  

What’s planned is a four-story residential complex consisting of studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments sporting various floor plans and plenty of luxury amenities including balconies and a swimming pool. Adjacent to the residential structure will be a four-level, three-story garage, that will “exceed code as far as the number of spaces” it contains, Ware said, noting the total development will exceed $30 million.

The L-shaped complex will cover 2.1 acres of the church’s nearly 3-acre campus, including a section of Thacker Avenue between Alford Place and Mitchell Street, allowing South Jacksonville Presbyterian 0.8 of an acre so that it can keep intact its sanctuary, administrative building and Harvin Hall, which is used by the church for fellowship. The church preschool building and its playground, as well as education building, family life center, music building, and two apartment buildings, one of which is used as a pastoral counseling center, will be demolished. Matthews Restaurant, which inhabits a separately owned building at the corner of Alford Place and Hendricks Avenue, is not part of the project.

“Our location is second to none in the heart of San Marco, with its proximity to restaurants and retailers and the ability to be able to walk rather than get in your car and find parking spaces. When Publix comes in and the retail shops that will come with it, again it’s going to be an enhancement to San Marco Square and our residents. Our residents will patronize all those establishments, and we are very happy to bring that to San Marco and to support the merchants and the merchants’ association,” Ware said. 

Park Place at San Marco will front 5,000 square feet along Hendricks Avenue from the edge of the covered Educational Building entrance of the church’s administration building to Matthews Restaurant, Ware said. In the rear, the back building that houses the preschool will be split from the long welcome sign adjacent to its entrance to the playground entrance and will be demolished while the adjacent half, which includes Harvin Hall, will remain intact. “Our residential building will be 40-feet-plus away from the street so that there will be a 40-foot-plus buffer from our building to Hendricks Avenue,” he said, noting the entrance will be a “resident amenity area,” with perhaps benches or a bike rack. “We aren’t sure exactly what we are going to do yet, but we are going to make it conducive for our residents.”

The rectangular-shaped apartment building with a courtyard in the middle will stretch from Hendricks Avenue, across Thacker Avenue to Mango Place. Along Alford Place, the apartments will wrap around the Matthews restaurant building, which is owned separately and not part of the project. The units will have balconies, enjoy amenities that are more than comparable to those found in other residential complexes, and there will be a courtyard pool area, he said, adding that within the next month there are plans to meet with the San Marco Preservation Society, District 5 Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber, At-Large District 4 Councilman Matt Carlucci and other interested parties as the design of the structure is considered. “We are willing to meet with everybody. We want to maintain the charm and character of San Marco as it has been, as it is today and how it is going to be tomorrow,” he said. “We will come up with a design that is appropriate and will blend in and maintain the charm and character of San Marco.”

Meanwhile, the garage will lie adjacent to the apartment building across the street from the church on the southeast corner surrounded by Thacker Avenue, Mitchell Avenue and Mango Place. Parking spaces will be assigned to residents. Churchgoers will have exclusive use of the first floor of the garage and sections of the second and third levels during services and church events. The public will also be able to use the garage during times when church is not in session. “Our commitment to the church is to make sure parking spaces are available to them as and when they need them,” he said.

Both Ware and King declined to discuss the price of the property. Ideally, Ware would like to break ground in April or May 2020, with construction being completed 16 months later in the summer of 2021, he said, noting the timeline will allow for the preschool to begin school in its present location.

Site plan for the new Park Place at San Marco development
Site plan for the new Park Place at San Marco development

While Harbert Realty Services will remain managing partner, it will also utilize several San Marco firms as resources. It is partnering with Corner Lot Development Group, led by CEO Andy Allen, a San Marco resident, and George Leone, chief operating officer, for its guidance through the local political process. San Marco’s EnVision + Engineering, led by Doug Skiles of San Marco, is the civil engineer and Group 4 Design led by Principals Karie Kovacocy of Avondale, Jamie Jaxon and Leigh Gunn, is the architect.

Attorneys Paul Harden and Zach Miller have also been hired to work through entitlements and rezoning of the property to a partial land-use change and planned unit development. 

Ware, who moved from Alabama to San Marco in 2016 to scout development opportunities for his company, said he learned about the church’s desire to sell its property through networking in commercial real estate circles and by word of mouth. 

Faced with a declining membership, the trustees of South Jacksonville Presbyterian spent several years considering how to better serve their membership through downsizing the church campus. “We are trying to utilize our resources to the best purposes available,” King said.

The church was named for South Jacksonville, which was a separate town on the Southbank when the church was established in 1913. The church began as a small Sunday School, part of an outreach of First Presbyterian Church downtown, and its first church edifice was erected on the corner of LaSalle Street and Hendricks Avenue, according to the church website.

In 1937, the congregation adopted a mood of “building fever,” and two years later, in 1939, the church moved to a three-story brick building at its present location. During the 1940s, church membership grew dramatically, so much so that the church had to rent a city bus to accommodate the men’s Sunday School class that had to meet under the big oak tree in the yard. In 1949, the congregation of nearly 1,000 members broke ground for a new church building and sanctuary with the first services being held in 1950, and by 1956 church membership topped more than 1,600 members and 1,000 were enrolled in Sunday School, according to the church website. However, like many religious congregations nationwide, since the 1960s, South Jacksonville Presbyterian’s membership began a slow decline and today the church is home to less than 250 congregants, putting a strain on the revenue needed to maintain the upkeep of its nearly 70-year-old edifice.

“Our property is more than we need, and it is well over 50 years old,” King said, adding it is very expensive to bring the buildings up to code and maintain them. With the buildings it plans to keep, the church will still have the capacity to absorb new members in the future, he said.

“I know the church wanted to divest some of its property so it is good that it will not be just sitting there making it more difficult for the church to operate,” said Cumber, noting she has only a general knowledge of the Park Place development. “I know the developers, and they do a great job. I have no doubt it’s going to enhance the neighborhood. For the neighborhood and for the vibrancy of San Marco, it’s great to have people walk and use the Beach Buggy. I will be watching closely as it goes through the process and LUZ (City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee),” she said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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