Northbank construction projects in flux

Northbank construction projects in flux
Grass and trees now cover the site where The Landing once stood

Recent turn of events has put more than one Northbank construction project in flux. A no vote on Lot J by the Jacksonville City Council sent Jaguars owner Shad Khan and his development team back to the drawing board. Khan and the city also received bad news when the National Park Service rejected the city’s request to swap land within Metropolitan Park with acreage in the Shipyards to allow Khan’s group to build a new hotel on park land.

Concerning other projects pending on the north side of the St. Johns River, the city is actively seeking designs for a park at the former site of the Jacksonville Landing, and the demolition of Berkman II is awaiting a greenlight from the city.

To the surprise of many, the City Council failed to find enough votes on Jan. 12 to approve Khan’s plan to redevelop the Lot J parking lot at TIAA Bank Field. The deal failed by one vote. Those who voted against it, who are now known as the Lot J Seven, included District 14 City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor and At Large, Group 4 City Councilman Matt Carlucci.

District 5 City Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber, who supported the deal, said she was surprised when the vote fell short.

“I think there were people who had talked about how they were going to vote, but you never know when it comes to the final vote how it goes,” Cumber said.

The legislation was amended several times and debated during numerous public hearings. Prior to the final vote, Cumber introduced an amendment to send the legislation to the Downtown Investment Authority for review.

The $450 million deal, which was negotiated by Mayor Lenny Curry’s office, included a Live! entertainment district, office space, residential and retail. The project was a partnership between Khan’s Gecko Investments, the Cordish Company of Baltimore, Md., and the city.

The city was expected to invest more than $200 million in the deal, which would have required a bond issue that ultimately would have cost taxpayers almost $400 million. The city also would have retained ownership of the property, keeping it off the tax rolls.

The developer also would have gotten a 50-year, interest-free “breadbox loan” worth $65 million.

The city auditor estimated that the city’s return on investment would have been 44 cents on the dollar. But the deal did not include any assurance that the NFL team would remain in Jacksonville when its stadium lease expires in 2030.

The public’s reaction was swift and negative. A University of North Florida poll found more than half the respondents opposed it.

In addition, the accountability group OurJax and the NAACP spoke out against it, calling it a bad deal for the city. “We’re not afraid to dream big as long as we dream smart,” said Audrey Moran, a director of OurJax.

“There was a lot of pressure on council to pass the deal. The Lot J Seven who stood up for taxpayers should be commended. It took a lot of courage. They stood their ground. It was a victory for the people,” Moran said.

The deal had been negotiated by the mayor’s office, circumventing the Downtown Investment Authority, which by city code is required to negotiate all downtown development deals.

Michael Ward, president of OurJax, said a lack of transparency was one of things that killed the deal.

“We’re hoping that lessons will be learned and that next time things will go through the normal process. DIA knows how to negotiate those deals,” Ward said.

After the vote, Jaguars President Mark Lamping said the Lot J deal is dead and that the focus was shifting to the development of Metropolitan Park.

Metro Park and the Shipyards

Khan, through his company Iguana Investments, wants to build a Four Seasons hotel and apartments, a medical complex and parking garage at Metropolitan Park, which is south of Lot J. The $535 million project would also include $151.2 million in incentives from the city.

But Metropolitan Park was built in the 1980s with a federal grant that requires the land to be used as a park in perpetuity. The city asked the National Park Service for permission to swap the Metropolitan Park with the Shipyards. But the federal agency notified the city in December that it would not approve the swap.

Khan has not announced how that will change his plans, but Boyer said she is in conversation with Khan about the project.

“I want to see how flexible they are about location,” Boyer said. “There needs to be a decision made about Metro Park. Do we leave Metro Park alone and move the development closer to downtown? Maybe you put another park closer to Hogan’s Creek or Berkman.”

Metro Park is designed to be a festival lawn and was a popular venue until its stage was damaged and torn down. Boyer said downtown needs a festival lawn and the Metro Park site is well suited because of its proximity to the parking at the stadium.

The Peyton administration had a plan to revamp the park, but then the Great Recession of 2008 hit, scuttling the plans.

The city owns the Shipyards, which is a former industrial site that would need environmental remediation before it could be developed.

The Museum of Science and History announced plans in November to relocate from its Southbank location, which it has occupied since 1967, to the Shipyards. Khan welcomed the move and pledged $5 million to the museum’s $20 million capital campaign.

Since the Park Service’s decision became public, MOSH CEO Bruce Fafard said the museum’s goal of moving into a new $80 million museum at the Shipyards site by 2024 had not changed.

Berkman II

The unfinished Berkman Plaza II, adjacent to the Shipyards, is getting closer to disappearing from the riverfront.

Developer Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization LLC has applied for a demolition permit to tear down the building at 500 E. Bay St., which has been vacant for 13 years. A construction worker was killed and several others were injured when the parking garage collapsed during construction.

An initial application for a permit to demolish the building by implosion was rejected by the city over concerns that debris could damage the adjacent Berkman Plaza I. Park Beeler, a principal of JRR, said JRR has now contracted with Pece of Mind Environmental Inc. of Orlando to demolish the building from the top down, a process that could take about six months at an estimated cost of about $1 million.

JRR is in the process of purchasing the property from 500 E. Bay LLC so that it can begin construction on a $50 million multi-use project, designed by KBJ. The first phase of the project would be a low-rise building with retail and commercial space on the first floor with luxury townhomes with private garages on the second floor. Condos or apartments could be built above the townhomes. The pool and other amenities would be on the roof.

The second phase would be a high-rise hotel or apartments or combination.

Beeler said an important piece of the project is the public space along the river that includes the Northbank Riverwalk and an expansion of the Berkman Plaza Marina. The green space would be adjacent to the Shipyards property and could form a natural link along the river all the way to Metropolitan Park.

The Landing

The DIA is seeking proposals from three firms for the design of a public park at the site of the former Jacksonville Landing that is described as a “vibrant and iconic public space on the premier waterfront site in Downtown Jacksonville.” 

Since the old riverfront mall was demolished last year, the six acres have been covered in grass and trees.

About 4.5 acres are designated for park space while the rest near Water Street and Independent Drive could be redeveloped. The city also plans to demolish the on-ramp to the  Main Street Bridge, which will add another 1.6 acres to the site.

The city has not set a budget for the project, but expects to award a contract by September.

The floating docks at the Landing and Friendship Park, which were damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017, have now been replaced.

Boyer said she wants the old Landing to become a destination park that will attract people from all over the city.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)