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- 2014 - July - 15th -

Mayor Alvin Brown's budget shows investment in the city’s urban core

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

In his first three years, Mayor Alvin Brown has talked about improving Downtown.

In the final year of his term, he’s making his biggest push toward that goal.

Brown is proposing more than $25 million worth of investments through the budget and Capital Improvement Plan presented Monday.

A walk along the Northbank would provide a glimpse at some of those sought-after improvements, headlined by $11.8 million for improvements to the Jacksonville Landing.

“That would generate a lot of public access in a critical portion of Downtown,” said David DeCamp, Brown’s spokesman.

Ideas to revitalize the Landing have been ongoing for years, but the latest talks actually took root last summer.

That’s when Landing owner Toney Sleiman began pitching council members on a redesign plan to open the retail and entertainment facility to the St. Johns River. That mixed-use plan incorporates residential and scaled-back retail compared to its current footprint.

A market feasibility study presented to the Downtown Investment Authority in April called redeveloping the Landing “the most critical component of any plan to redevelop Downtown.”

The $11.8 million would improve the Riverwalk at the facility, establish a small amphitheater, bring improvements to areas near the Main Street Bridge and better integrate the Hogan Street entrance that simply is a cul-de-sac. All of the improvements are for city-owned land, DeCamp said, with the goal still being a mixed-use project.

While the $11.8 million is public money, details on the private side of the equation remain scant.

“We are persuaded that Toney (Sleiman) has a strong vision for what this has become,” said DeCamp, when asked how much Sleiman and the private side have committed.

Multiple calls to Sleiman about the project went unreturned Monday and Tuesday.

The public money would be subject to an economic development agreement that would receive DIA and council review and approval, DeCamp said.

But, before any public money is spent, Council member Don Redman said Monday he wants to see what the private sector is willing to spend before taxpayer dollars are spent.

Redman, who represents the Downtown district, said he hasn’t heard much about the project for some time and he still has questions, mostly about what the latest Landing plan is and the level of private commitment.

Farther down the Riverwalk, the land that once housed jurors and judges could soon house sidewalks and shrubs.

Brown is pitching to spend $4.2 million to demolish the former County Courthouse on East Bay Street for green space and potentially private investment. The building has asbestos issues and hasn’t been used since the new courthouse opened in June 2012.

“We know this is a potentially valuable piece of real estate,” DeCamp said.

Even farther east along the St. Johns River, both the Shipyards property and Metropolitan Park stand to benefit in the latest budget. The Shipyards environmental issues could have $1.25 million worth of remediation, while $250,000 could be spent for a design study to increase the park’s role as an entertainment venue.

Away from the river, commuters could see a change that’s also been a topic for some time: turning many of Downtown’s one-way streets into two-way. The $1 million Brown is proposing to spend on the issue would design such a transition, with work starting in October and slated to end September 2018.

Adams, Forsyth, Hogan, Julia, Monroe and Pearl streets all could be part of such a project, which would cost $8.3 million in fiscal 2015-16, according to the capital plan.

Council member Bill Bishop has been an advocate for that plan in the past, but said Monday he wanted to further review what the mayor’s proposal entails.

Council members didn’t immediately receive hard copies of the budget and received an electronic copy just after Brown’s address.

As for the slew of Downtown proposals as a whole, Redman said “they’re all important” but he wanted to see more details on the individual projects.

It’s not just projects receiving a boost.

The DIA’s budget will be relatively flat compared to last year, but the organization charged with revitalizing Downtown would add two staff members under Brown’s budget. That would bring its employee cap up to six after two staff members were hired earlier this year.

One would be a budget analyst and compliance officer, while the other would handle design and development review, according to Aundra Wallace, the authority’s CEO.

Many of those projects typically would be included in a Downtown spending plan. But, Wallace said the fact they’ve been picked up in the CIP means the administration has listened to the public during the CRA process.

That plan still needs council approval and should reach the body next month, Wallace said. But, by including such projects in this year’s CIP means acting on needs instead of waiting, Wallace said.

The board has been crafting that plan for about a year.

Jacksonville Landing: $11.8M

Support first phase of improvements, such as an expanded plaza along the Northbank Riverwalk, additional public space, broader access at the Hogan Street entrance and demolition of existing structures.

Changing one-way streets: $1M

Designing the transition of one-way streets into two-way streets.

Lighting and signage: $1.5M

Improve lighting and signage to enhance the experience of visiting Downtown.

Old County Courthouse: $4.2M

Tearing down site to provide “new opportunities for public or private development.”

Shipyards: $1.25M

Environmental cleanup of the riverfront site, which needs remediation.

Northbank Riverwalk: $3M

Upgrades to “continue maximizing the potential of the pedestrian park.”

Metropolitan Park: $250,000

Begin the design to maximize its role as an entertainment venue.

One Spark: $100,000

Doubles the city’s direct support of the annual crowdfunding festival.

Armada FC: Up to $1M

Up to $700,000 to convert the Baseball Grounds for the team to play there. A one-time capital investment of $300,000.

DIA: $2.6M

$1.4 million budget for 2014-15, relatively flat from last year, and $1.2 million for non-capital projects to spur development.

Library: $1.1M

Creates public spaces within the Main Library and boosts materials budget.

dchapman@baileypub.com

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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