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- 2014 - January - 30th -

New life for Freedom Commerce

By Karen Mathis, Managing Editor

Freedom Commerce Centre, which has a complicated ownership history, has been transformed by two buyers as the Prominence office park and the Lower St. Johns Mitigation Bank.

The 853-acre center, a large-scale Development of Regional Impact established in 1987, sits in a high-profile area of South Jacksonville, south of Baymeadows Road between Philips Highway and Interstate 95.

Two recent acquisitions are positioning the bulk of the park for highly visible uses – one developed, the other not.

Crocker Partners of Boca Raton bought the 54-acre, seven-building former Freedom Commerce Centre office park, initially developed from 1988-98 by Koger Equity Inc., and is rebranding it as Prominence.

And almost 630 acres of Freedom Commerce Centre is now part of the Lower St. Johns Mitigation Bank.

That property is owned by NeoVerde-St. Johns LLC, based in Dallas.

The remaining property consists of other conservation land; business park uses, including roads, ponds and common areas; the movie theater along Philips Highway and nearby restaurants and stores; and about 10 undeveloped acres.

William Huckin, NeoVerde-St. Johns LLC managing partner, said the mitigation bank is open to sell freshwater wetlands credits.

"That was one of our options and we chose to turn it into a mitigation bank," he said.

The entire Lower St. Johns Mitigation Bank is about 990 acres. In addition to the Freedom Commerce Centre property, NeoVerde owns several more tracts in the area to include in the bank.

In the simplest terms, mitigation bankers restore or enhance wetlands, and in rare instances create them.

They sell credits to developers who cannot mitigate on their sites for wetlands impacts. The bank sells credits to offset the impacts.

The sale of wetland credits legally transfers the liability of wetland mitigation from the applicant seeking the permit to the wetland banker.

The St. Johns River Water Management District says the Lower St. Johns Mitigation Bank has about 140 potential credits, of which almost 116 have been released by the district for NeoVerde to market.

In general terms, one mitigation credit is equal to the ecological value of creating one acre of wetlands, according to the district.

"We have not sold any credits yet. We have just started marketing it," Huckin said.

As the Daily Record reported Aug. 23, NeoVerde-St. Johns LLC, a partnership based in Dallas, bought nearly 630 acres in the Freedom Commerce Centre for $12.5 million from The Goodman Co.

Much of the vacant property is conservation, easement and wetlands. However, more than 100 acres were designated on city property records for business-park land use.

Parts of the property could have been turned into offices, apartments and retail use.

As a mitigation bank, NeoVerde says that property now will be preserved.

City Council is considering an ordinance to modify the DRI to assign a land use of conservation, mitigation and preservation to most of the undeveloped land within the DRI.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper has long been watching the property and advocating for its environmental health.

"Our goal has always been to protect as many of the wetlands on the FCC site as possible," said Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth.

He said the park is the location of the headwaters of Julington Creek and Pottsburg Creek. "We are still committed to making sure that these extremely important wetlands retain the level of protections that we fought so hard to get in place," he said.

Orth said the permit transfers from the former owners to NeoVerde and the establishment of the mitigation bank don't change that protected status of the wetlands "or potentially open the door to future development."

Orth said the Riverkeeper leaders hope to meet the NeoVerde owners to learn more about the plans.

Freedom Commerce Centre's frontage stretches for 2.5 miles along I-95 from the Baymeadows Road interchange to the Philips Highway interchange.

NeoVerde-St. Johns LLC bought the property from partnerships of The Goodman Co. of West Palm Beach. Goodman bought the Freedom Commerce Centre property in 1999 and 2000.

FCC Partners LP Ltd., a Goodman partnership, sent a letter dated July 22 to notify the St. Johns River Water Management District that a portion of its property was sold and its water management permit was partially assigned to NeoVerde-St. Johns LLC.

Meanwhile, in late 2012, the seven buildings in the Freedom Commerce Centre park were sold for $27.8 million to Crocker Partners V Freedom LLC of Boca Raton. The group bought the buildings from LNR Partners LLC of Miami Beach.

Crocker announced recently it was rebranding and upgrading the office park as the Prominence and intends to make a multimillion-dollar capital improvement to the property.

Crocker announced it will upgrade and renovate the property, comprising 752,154 square feet of office space.

Crocker said the new name reflects its confidence in Jacksonville's office market, its commitment to the property and its long-term investment.

kmathis@baileypub.com

@MathisKb

(904) 356-2466

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