Rendering from the city Parks and Recreation Department show a park at shopping center site.
If the city gets full control of the Jacksonville Landing, Mayor Lenny Curry plans to demolish the aging riverfront mall to make room for a sprawling urban park.
That’s the idea behind new design renderings obtained this week from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The conceptual art for the almost 6-acre site depicts an expansive mix of greenspace and pedestrian paths where the Landing stands.
It comes two weeks after the Office of General Counsel sent Jacksonville Landing Investments Inc. an eviction letter for allegedly breaching terms of the company’s lease agreement with the city.
JLI, part of Sleiman Enterprises Inc., owns the three buildings comprising the Landing. The city owns the ground underneath and leases that to Sleiman’s company.
JLI assumed the lease from Rouse-Jacksonville Inc. in 2003 and extended it to 2041.
Brian Hughes, Curry’s chief of staff, said Wednesday the rendering came after “a series of conceptual discussions with Mayor Curry” and the executive leadership team.
“The design concept you have is the result of those discussions and was created by a city staff member,” Hughes said. He did not identify that staff member.
The renderings obtained Tuesday show pedestrian walkways through formal gardens, water features and vegetation, along with expanses of greenspace.
“Mayor Curry’s idea would utilize centrally located property that is on the river and in the heart of Downtown as a riverfront plaza,” said Hughes, who called the idea “a front lawn for the core of Downtown.”
The docks along the St. Johns River, which remain closed after sustaining damage from hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Matthew in 2016, also would be repaired — another sore spot for Sleiman’s company.
Flanked on either side by the Main Street Bridge and the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, the park would be along the existing Northbank Riverwalk.
The renderings show an entrance ramp for traffic coming from Independent Drive East onto the Main Street Bridge would be removed. A pedestrian and bike path would connect to the bridge from the park.
Away from the river, the design shows symmetrical buildings closer to the streets on either side of the park.
Hughes said the city would “invite economic development that utilizes proximity to natural, public space,” and that the move beyond concept would require collaboration between public and private partners.
“This drawing is really a launchpad for a discussion in our community,” he said.
Sleiman Enterprises, through a statement Wednesday in reaction to the drawing, said that the company has invested more than $1.5 million into redevelopment efforts.
She said the city of Jacksonville also spent millions in resources on new plans and studies.
“In 2015, the city spent $100,000 on its own public design plans and we loved it,” the statement said.
“We wish they would pick one so we can get to work.”
Boyles said the company has been ready to redevelop the Landing since 2003.
A familiar look
For those who remember Downtown before 1987, when the Landing was completed, the new rendering is similar to an old concept.
In the decade before developer Rouse-Jacksonville began construction of the mall in 1985, there was a strong push by local and state officials to build an urban park.
A “Land Water Conservation Fund Program Grant” application submitted in May 1980 to the Florida Department of Natural Resources Division of Recreation and Parks and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Heritage, Conservation and Recreation Services by the city details what would have been the “St. Johns River Esplanade,” an urban waterfront park where the Landing now stands.
According to the 119-page document, Mayor Jake Godbold sought $500,000 in federal and $1 million in state funding to help construct the park.
City Council in 1980 adopted two resolutions supporting the estimated $4.5 million project.
Those plans would evolve over the next 15 years, eventually leading to the creation of Metropolitan Park near TIAA Bank Field.
The Landing was completed in 1987 and for the first years thrived as a destination for shoppers and visitors.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Landing has seen patronage continue to decline and retailers move out.
Hughes acknowledged that legal issues have stalled development efforts since Curry took office in 2015, but not because the mayor is unwilling.
“Obviously, the property in question is subject to ongoing litigation, but the mayor wanted to visualize what he believes would be the best and highest use for the property,” said Hughes.
Since October the sides have engaged in a legal battle accusing each other of failing to uphold provisions of the 1985 lease agreement.
JLI contends the Curry administration refuses to properly maintain the property.
The city said it believes Sleiman has essentially run the riverfront retail facility into disrepair, leading to vacant storefronts and a less welcoming environment for visitors.
In addition to that conflict, the city sued JLI in 2015 for failing to close on a 2007 sale of an adjacent parking lot called the east parcel.
City attorneys alleged JLI owed back property taxes and despite never taking ownership of the 1.6-acre site, continued to make money from parking fees.
Sleiman in 2007 agreed to purchase the property for $4.7 million to expand the Landing onto the site and delivered the funds to the city, per the agreement.
The sale was not closed, which the city claims is JLI’s fault.
On June 8, the city filed a motion to “unwind” the unfinished parking lot transaction, while also stating explicitly that it still disagrees with JLI’s stance that the company doesn’t have to close on the sale and take possession of the property.
In a statement Wednesday, General Counsel Jason Gabriel said, “it is now in the best interest of the City and its citizens that the City keep the legal title to the surface parking lot and remove JLI from possession.”
“The original purpose of this litigation was to compel JLI to fulfill its now decade-old obligation to take legal title to the surface parking lot, which it has been occupying and operating since August of 2007, while also benefiting from all of the revenues generated by the parking operation.
“It has become clear that JLI has no intention of fulfilling its contractual obligations to the City, not only to take title to the parking lot, but also to operate the Landing as the first-class retail establishment the citizens of Jacksonville deserve,” his statement reads.
Gabriel said the city’s action was justified and legally correct to demand JLI close on the sale.
Sleiman on Wednesday contended the city never issued the deed to transfer the property title and in October 2014, without the title, “Sleiman Enterprises requested its money be returned.”
In another statement Wednesday from Sleiman, the company acknowledged and criticized the city’s latest action.
“Less than three weeks before the court date, the city of Jacksonville did a complete 180 and reversed its position on the east parking lot lawsuit,” it read.
“While Sleiman Enterprises is vindicated by the city’s position, we remain disappointed,” the statement said.
“The City of Jacksonville intentionally used litigation as another roadblock against Sleiman Enterprises providing our community with a successful redevelopment of the Jacksonville Landing,” the statement reads.
The parties were scheduled to appear for a three-day trial before 4th Judicial Circuit Judge Robert Dees beginning June 27.
“However, recent events relating to the Landing since the lawsuit was filed now dictate that a different remedy is in the public’s best interest,” said Gabriel.