Vestcor’s three communities may be the catalyst for an upturn in residential development.
By Drew Dixon Contributing Writer
New apartment communities are popping up Downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods, but it’s what’s coming next that has officials optimistic.
Aundra Wallace, CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, said if there’s a harbinger of things to come, it’s the Lofts at LaVilla east of the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center.
The apartment complex was fully leased before the 130 units opened in December.
“At this period of time in 2018, in this real estate cycle, Jacksonville’s Downtown has great momentum. And we need to continue that momentum,” Wallace said in a June interview.
Wallace said the LaVilla complex, and others similar to it that are under construction or in the planning stages, will drive the urban core’s residential population to the DIA’s goal of 10,000 residents.
That population would maximize business and entertainment amenities and provide a substantial tax and economic growth return.
To get there, Wallace said the urban core will need to see about 385 new residential units developed each year over the next few years.
“That’s the path that we’re on. We’re getting close to just that, but it’s about 300 (per year) right now,” Wallace said.
The Vestcor Companies is a developer adding more residential units Downtown.
Vestcor built the Lofts at LaVilla and is adding 108 units a few blocks north at the Lofts at Monroe apartments expected to open in November.
Vestcor also is building a third 133-unit apartment complex.
The Lofts at Jefferson, east of the LaVilla complex, will likely open in fall 2019.
“We saw a large, unmet demand in Downtown,” said Steve Moore, president of Vestcor.
Moore said Vestcor was encouraged by the development of 220 Riverside in the Brooklyn neighborhood along Riverside Avenue.
After the success of that community, Moore said Vestcor believed it was time to dive into the core of the city. He added the company sees itself as leading the way toward more development within the DIA’s roughly 3-square-mile boundaries.
“We certainly hope long-term that we’re the catalyst to see other development in the LaVilla area, whether it’s residential or commercial. We see ourselves in the Downtown area long-term,” Moore said.
He said the company would like to develop more projects Downtown, but they haven’t reached the conceptual stage.
“We’re looking anywhere in that Downtown and Brooklyn area for future deals,” Moore said. “We’ll make sure we deliver what we have out there. We’re big believers in Downtown.”
Jake Gordon, CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Vision Inc., said Vestcor’s development may provide the catalyst on the final upturn of residential development in Jacksonville’s urban core.
“Vestcor, they are very good at what they do. They’re a housing developer … they are very good at judging the market and who’s going to rent their places. The private sector doesn’t want to put money in and not have things being rented,” Gordon said.
“When you see an uptick in private development interests, that’s very valuable. They believe that people will rent or buy residences in Downtown,” he said.
Whether it’s Vestcor’s influence or not, Wallace said there will be an influx of new residential development in the coming years.
Wallace listed what’s been accomplished, including the 220 Riverside and Brooklyn Riverside Apartments.
He then pointed to new developments being built or planned including:
• The Barnett, with 108 units expected to be completed by 2019.
• The Lofts at Monroe.
• The Lofts at Jefferson.
• The Broadstone apartments with 264 units on the Southbank.
• The San Marco Apartments on Home Street with another 147 units.
• A complex with a planned 300 units in the 800 block of Prudential Drive.
• Brooklyn Vista, which is planned to add 300 units in the Riverside Avenue area.
• The approval of the 200 Riverside apartment complex.
• Recent city approval of the mixed-use development The District on the Southbank at the site of the former JEA generating station which will add 950 residences.
Wallace said he sees Jacksonville as catching up in urban residential building.
“This real estate cycle started roughly about 2010 across the country,” after 2008 and 2009 when many cities were trying to decide how to proceed in the wake of the Great Recession. But Jacksonville, despite its momentum, is lagging behind other cities that already are experiencing an urban renaissance, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Miami and New York.
“Some cities have been having great upward trajectory in terms of development since 2010. We, on the other hand, started our trajectory, started our development roughly about 2013. We’re roughly three years behind the full cycle of what other cities have been doing,” Wallace said.
Gordon said it might be uncertain as to how long Downtown can maintain its residential development momentum, but the uptick is undeniable.
The number of people living Downtown has nearly quadrupled since 2000, Gordon said.
That’s when there were 1,816 people living Downtown. That jumped to about 3,970 in 2010 and now 4,450 people.
That number will increase substantially in the near future with the Vestcor projects and others also coming online.
“We’re exceeding expectations relative to the DIA plan that they did about four years ago. But we were behind and there was no building for about three years,” Gordon said.
Wallace said the goal of 10,000 residents in the city’s core appears to be realistic.
“They (developers) want to get their returns quick. They look to place their money in cities like Miami, New York, Atlanta and Charlotte, etc. They’re going to get in and get out, whereas Jacksonville is a much more patient market,” Wallace said.
“I would say if the economy holds up, achieving the goals are quite attainable. But we’re not there yet,” Wallace said.