Guest Commentary: Successful development of the Northbank requires vision, political will, transparency, and urgency

The views and opinions in Guest Commentary are solely those of the author. These views and opinions do not reflect those of The Resident News or any contributors to this publication.

By Michael Balanky
Michael Balanky is a third generation Jacksonville native and is President/CEO of Chase Properties, Inc.

Jacksonville has a rare opportunity to develop a world-class riverfront with amenities very few cities can compete with. The latest developments regarding Lot J may be a blessing in disguise. By creating a competitive environment and reallocating the proposed developer subsidies, we may be able to take advantage of the current situation and use it to the benefit of the North Bank as a whole. If properly executed we can achieve Critical Mass by developing Lot J, the Shipyards, the old Courthouse/City Hall all and other proposed Northbank developments within a concentrated timeframe.

World Class Riverfront

Imagine coming to Jacksonville and staying in a beautiful riverfront hotel with amazing recreational options like our TIAA Stadium, Lot J, Jumbo Shrimp Baseball Grounds, Vystar Arena, Daily’s Place, MOSH, Navy Ship/Museum, offshore and river fishing, sunset riverboat dining cruises, boat and jet ski rentals etc. This Northbank development would complement the exciting developments that are, or soon to be, under construction on the Southbank from Baptist Hospital to The District. The possibilities are endless. But, to accomplish these goals will take vision, urgency, and political will.

Developement Goals

  • Keeping the Jaguars in Jacksonville
  • Raising Jacksonville’s profile nationally
  • Increasing the acreage and access of Riverfront Parks
  • Incorporating resiliency in all new Riverfront Projects
  • Attracting the maximum number of visitors to Jacksonville on a consistent basis
  • Developing a self-sustaining Northbank that spurs economic development Downtown
  • Increasing the Ad Valorem Tax Base and ensuring the maximum Return on Investment

Definition of Critical Mass

“Critical mass is the point at which a growing entity becomes self-sustaining and no longer needs additional investment to remain economically viable. … It is the point at which the business becomes profitable enough to continue growing by itself and no longer requires investment from outsiders.”

This concept is particularly relevant to real estate development.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Professional football is a highly competitive business with incredible stakes. Accordingly, there has been, and will continue to be, much discussion regarding the potential relocation of NFL teams, including the Jaguars. Most of us hope that never happens, but we must be prepared in case it does. To control our destiny and ensure a bright future for our Downtown, we must design developments that work, with or without the Jaguars. Ironically, developments that produce Critical Mass for our city, will also help ensure the financial success of the Jaguars, and increase the likelihood that they stay in Jacksonville.

One major consideration is whether to build Lot J and other proposed developments, simultaneously or in phases. It is doubtful that a stand-alone Lot J development without the Jaguars would be successful. However, a synergistic development incorporating a Convention Center and other attractions, could be extremely successful, with or without Lot J and/or the Jaguars. Combining all of these concepts together would raise Jacksonville’s profile on an international level. 

Convention Center

In a Times Union article from August of 2018: Mark Lamping said they believe “Phase One of the Shipyards plan should be a Convention Center and hotel. The City participation should be just enough to make sure the project is economically viable, and it should be no more than a contribution that the City can generally return to the taxpayers.” 

Mark Lamping was correct. To that end, the City did an RFP for a Convention Center on the Old Courthouse site in 2018. Jacobs Engineering, an internationally recognized firm, was selected as the winner. The design was spectacular and would put Jacksonville in an elite class of cities with the ability to compete for more than its fair share of conventions.

Unfortunately, shortly after the project was awarded to Jacobs, a decision was made that a Convention Center would not be successful without additional entertainment venues, and the commitment to Jacobs was rescinded. The Courthouse/City Hall site was then awarded to Spandrel Development Partners for a mixed-use project (Ford on Bay). However, the contiguous property owner (Hyatt Hotel), has revealed that they hold a “Right of First Refusal” contract on the City Hall portion of the site. Due to the obvious benefit a Convention Center would be to the Hyatt, they are reluctant to release their option for anything other than a Convention Center. Eliminating the City Hall parcel from Spandrel’s development has resulted in a redesigned project that does not achieve its highest and best use. But there is a solution.

In the last few months, the City proposed a development on Lot J which included an entertainment venue. This new venue would eliminate the argument regarding a Convention Center needing more entertainment options. This would also allow the City to honor its original commitment to the Convention Center on the Old Courthouse/City Hall site. Ideally, the Spandrel Development could be relocated to an alternative site at the Shipyards where they could now develop a project to its highest and best use.

To date the principals at Jacobs Engineers have invested more than $1 million in the design, development, and pursuit of the Old Courthouse/City Hall site. While Jacobs and their consultants are convinced that this would be the ideal site, they have stated they would consider alternative sites at the Shipyards versus not building a Convention Center at all.

Advantages of a Convention Center

Building a Convention Center has several advantages:

  • Will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors 350-plus days a year
  • Increase patronage to the Lot J development substantially more than relying on locals, thereby ensuring a better chance for success
  • Will allow the City to create critical mass and ensure the entire Northbank is successful, with or without the Jaguars
  • Increase attendance to Jags games ensuring more revenue for the team
  • Increase visitation to the proposed Museum of Science and History (MOSH), the proposed Navy Ship/Museum, the proposed Four Seasons Hotel and the existing area hotels, thereby ensuring a better chance for success for each of them

While Convention Centers have suffered due to COVID-19, industry experts predict that they will return in full force post-widespread vaccination. Particularly in new healthy designed facilities in areas of the country that fared well through the pandemic, like Florida.

Riverfront Parks

Jacksonville has the opportunity to nearly double the acreage of the Shipyards by filling in the submerged land that the city already owns. This would not only increase the number of parkland acres that are so important to the overall community, but also add additional developable acres to the Critical Mass and additional ad valorem to the tax rolls. The Convention Center proposed by Jacobs Engineering includes a four-acre park.

One creative solution to save millions of dollars to fill-in the submerged land is to use the clean fill being dredged by the Port Authority for the deepening of the St. Johns River. This will provide the city with free fill with which to create new park land and save the Port Authority money by having a closer place to off-load the fill, versus taking it offshore.

Grocery Store

While we are on the subject of Critical Mass, we would be remiss not to discuss a grocery store Downtown. Jacksonville has been trying to get to 10,000 residential units for far too long. The same old argument that retail will not survive without rooftops, can be eliminated with the same type of incentives/subsidies the city has offered the other Northbank developments, but at a fraction of the cost. A grocery store will help bring the rooftops and additional retail to the market that much faster and will be a major amenity to out-of-town visitors.

Environmental Remediation

As the owner of the Shipyards and Lot J, the City needs to begin the environmental cleanup of the properties, which has been delayed for decades. Waiting for a developer who will take the risk and upfront the cost of remediation will dramatically limit the interest on the site. To the contrary, a professionally structured RFP will generate strong competition from environmental remediation companies, which will help ensure it is completed much faster and for much less than the current projections.


To their credit, the DIA and the City have already established specific financial parameters (incentives) for the various proposed developments, and the City Council has shown its willingness to invest the necessary resources to spur intelligent development on the Northbank. With a little creativity, these pre-defined and generally agreed upon incentives should adequately provide the necessary funding to create the level of Critical Mass that will ensure the success of the Northbank and Downtown. It may also help ensure the Jaguars stay in Jacksonville.

Urgency and Transparency

With historically low interest rates there will never be a better time to secure financing for the proposed developments. But we need to move now.   

To achieve success, the City/DIA should establish a committee of qualified players to assist them in managing the process. This format was extremely effective in passing the half-penny sales tax for our schools and could be just as effective for this important cause. Likewise, the process should also include oversight by the media and include monitoring/polling by the University of North Florida to ensure the public sentiment is measured and incorporated.

For the sake of our city, we cannot let this opportunity get politicized. If we all come together for this important cause, this development can become a legacy for everyone involved, including this administration, this City Council, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The views and opinions in Guest Commentary are solely those of the author. These views and opinions do not reflect those of The Resident News or any contributors to this publication.

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