- 2014 - January - 17th -

Sleiman: ‘A lot of moving parts’ to make Landing plan succeed

By Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

Jacksonville Landing developer Toney Sleiman was blunt Thursday.

"Downtown today sucks," he said.

"I'm sorry if that is offending somebody, but go look at other downtowns that are doing great."

Anyone who knows Toney Sleiman can hear him saying it. He's gruff, insistent and frustrated.

Sleiman wants to redevelop the Landing, the Northbank riverfront marketplace he bought in 2003 for $5 million. It opened in 1987 and enjoyed early popularity with stores like Brookstone, Banana Republic, Laura Ashley, the Gap, The Limited, Ben & Jerry's, Sharper Image and other nationally successful tenants.

Then it began losing some of that luster.

It struggled with a lack of parking, a loss of tenants, a fear of crime and complaints about cleanliness, in addition to a horseshoe design considered a celebration of the river 27 years ago but a shunning of Downtown now.

Its troubles continued as employers relocated Downtown office jobs to suburban office parks. Three economic recessions played a part, too.

Then there was the St. Johns Town Center in Southside. The massive lifestyle center opened in 2005 and developed into a force of shopping, restaurants, residences and hotels.

It became what Downtown wanted to be.

Sleiman has presented redesign and redevelopment plans the past 10 years. But with little support, he shelved them.

"The Landing doesn't work," he said. "I tried. Ten years. "

He now proposes a drastic, and some might say long-awaited, plan of action: Tear it down.

While there will be debates over what happens next, Sleiman wants to rebuild on the site, with restaurants, retail stores, offices, workforce housing and a boutique hotel.

Sleiman has developed lots of property around town, but said his focus now will be "dead on" the Landing.

"This is the core," Sleiman said Thursday.

On Wednesday, he presented a design to the Downtown Investment Authority that incorporated community input.

Sleiman said Thursday he doesn't have a timeframe for redevelopment – or a price tag, other than to emphasize it will take support from government and public sources.

"We have to make it work, and it has to be private-public," Sleiman said.

That means financial incentives from the city.

He said the city was doing a market study on workforce housing, which he expects in 60 days, and he can use the results to approach developers.

The boutique hotel is another component. He said Mayor Alvin Brown and Ted Carter, executive director of the city Office of Economic Development, will accompany him to call on hotel chains.

With the mayor involved, "at least we get inside to talk to them."

Sleiman said the costs to redevelop the Landing will depend on factors such as the number of workforce housing units to be developed, the number of hotel rooms that can be supported, and costs to relocate the Landing's tenants.

He guesses there could be 200-300 housing units and a hotel of 100-150 rooms, but says he really has no idea.

Sleiman considers the stars to be "lined up" in favor of the Landing's redevelopment, citing Brown's support and other favorable responses.

"There is no way in the 21st century that we can have a vibrant Downtown that's thriving … if we don't focus on the Landing," Brown told the authority Wednesday.

"The Landing is a top priority for my administration," he said.

But it won't be easy. Acknowledging there are "a lot of moving parts," Sleiman knows the deal requires financial and government support and approvals, and a belief there will be a market of residents, tenants and consumers to support the redevelopment.

Sleiman said he intends to visit all City Council members starting next week.

"If I get 19 council people that say yes, a mayor that says yes, a DIA board that says yes and Downtown Vision … I am going to get everybody on board," he said.

He intends to meet with Jacksonville Civic Council founding Chairman Peter Rummell and other corporate leaders. Sleiman said civic leader Preston Haskell's team was designing the project.

"I can't do it by myself. I have to have help," Sleiman said. "I have to have financial help. I have to have 'help' help. I need the (news)papers supporting me."

Sleiman contends that a world-class Landing will attract business and people.

"Guess what happens Downtown? We fill up those buildings," he said, referring to office towers and structures that struggle with a Northbank office vacancy rate of 21.3 percent.

Compare that to Southbank's 11.1 percent office vacancy rate, or the overall area rate of 18.6 percent, according to the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm for the fourth quarter.

Sleiman said proposed developments at the Shipyards, in La Villa and even the Laura Street Trio and old Barnett Bank buildings won't make a difference in the core like the Landing can.

"I think the young people want something to happen. I hear it all the time, how tired they are" with no progress for Downtown development to bring jobs, stores and entertainment.

"I am going to be on it every day. We are going to go forward," he said.

But he said he won't wait long.

"I am going to have preliminary numbers in the next 60 days and the city will say yes or no," he said, adding he wouldn't do a "one-year drag-out."

And if the city says no?

He paused.

"I haven't thought about it."



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