Lori Boyer wants to create dining density in the urban core to create a destination.
In early 2020, the Downtown Investment Authority could begin a program to promote a dense corridor of restaurants in vacant ground-floor spaces in the Northbank core.
DIA CEO Lori Boyer says she’s working on a plan that will either modify the authority’s existing Retail Enhancement Grant Program or create an initiative to provide financial assistance targeting restaurants and businesses with higher build-out costs.
The plan will include a marketing campaign, connecting building and restaurant owners with Downtown Vision Inc. and jaxrestaurantreviews.com to reach potential customers citywide and bring them Downtown.
In an interview Oct. 25, Boyer said a written proposal should be in front of the DIA board for approval by February, and she wants at least five storefronts filled by summer 2021.
“My goal is to bring that restaurant and retail environment up alongside the residential growth to support it, so that we never have that lag in demand on the residential side,” Boyer said.
Boyer said increasing retail and restaurant density could help avoid a plateau in residential growth Downtown. During a JAX Chamber trip to Buffalo, New York, in 2017, city leaders there told the Jacksonville delegation that downtown growth halted at roughly 6,000 residents because it lacked nightlife, entertainment and retail.
About 5,220 people were living in Downtown Jacksonville as of April, according to DVI’s 2018-19 State of the Downtown report. Developers have 978 units under construction and 3,038 are proposed.
Boyer met recently with a group of local restaurateurs, retail brokers and building owners and found the primary obstacle to relocating or opening restaurants in the Northbank core is tenant improvement costs.
Many retail spaces Downtown are in older buildings that don’t have existing ventilation, grease traps or facilities to handle a commercial kitchen.
The DIA has awarded $690,645 in retail enhancement grants to 14 businesses since the program began.
Business owners approved for the grant are reimbursed $20 per square foot or up to 50% of the project construction cost. Boyer will ask the DIA board to create a greater contribution to restaurants relocating to the Northbank core.
The Retail Enhancement Grant fund has about $2 million available for the initial push. Boyer said any city-backed contribution would include a payment from the property owners but the amount has not been determined.
The DIA board and City Council would have to approve modifications to the grant program or the creation of a separate incentive. With an average 12-month build-out timeline for a restaurant, Boyer said she wants to move quickly to meet her summer 2021 goal.
“We just need to recognize the cost of a restaurant build-out is way more expensive than the cost of a normal retail shop,” Boyer said.
Boyer wants the DIA to recruit restaurant owners to relocate or open a second location and to seek variety. That would ensure the Downtown market doesn’t become saturated by similar businesses, such as a block of coffee shops or one type of restaurant.
“You want to go after the restaurants in town that already have a line,” she said, quoting a restaurateur. If a restaurant has customers waiting outside the door, they are the targets for a Downtown location.
Jacksonville restaurant owner Jonathan Insetta brought the Bellwether to 100 N. Laura St. Downtown in April 2017.
He sees sales growth at Bellwether, but at a slower rate than at his group’s restaurants outside of the Northbank core. His group also owns Orsay in Avondale; Black Sheep Restaurant in Five Points in Riverside; and BLK SHP at Intuition Ale Works.
“Lunch is always good. When there’s an event Downtown, it’s great, but we’d like more guests during the night and dinner hours,” Insetta said. “We have a long way to go to become viable (Downtown).”
He said Bellwether was an investment for the future and he believes its growth will increase with residential density.
“The good thing is, everybody Downtown wants this to happen. Everyone is working toward the same goal. We’re just at the beginning of something,” he said.
When Hurricane Dorian emptied city streets in early September, Boyer said she drove through Downtown looking for potential retail space and cataloged 31 buildings with vacant ground-floor space.
One space, previously Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails and MLG in the historic Seminole Building, has been filled by 10/Six Grille.
Boyer analyzed an area bounded by Bay, Main, Ashley and Julia streets. She said it became apparent that Hogan and Laura streets are great corridors with a lot of vacant spaces.
She said locating a restaurant inside a high-rise like the Bank of America Tower or Wells Fargo Center “does nothing for the street life.”
The DIA program is designed to create a dense area of bars and restaurants to make the Northbank a destination for diners.
“You won’t be going Downtown to Bellwether or to Cowford (Chophouse), you’re going Downtown for dinner,” she said. “You could walk up and down the street and find six or seven different places and decide whose menu you’d like that night.”
Boyer’s proposal also will address the issue of available nighttime parking Downtown by opening the city-owned Yates Garage at 200 E. Adams St. and the Ed Ball Garage at 238 W. Monroe St. for restaurant and retail patrons at no charge.
She acknowledges there would be additional electricity costs for lighting and possibly security expenses, but she said opening parking could be a low-cost way to eliminate one barrier for Downtown businesses after 5 p.m.
Boyer believes that a targeted retail and restaurant program needs to happen in conjunction with a plan to convert some one-way streets into two-ways in the Downtown core.
The DIA board’s Downtown Community Redevelopment Area Plan adopted in July 2014 stated two-way streets as a goal. DIA officials say the current one-way street grid reduces the visibility of street-level business Downtown.
“The challenge is, they (one-way streets) do a good job of getting everyone out of Downtown but are unfriendly for pedestrians. They’re unfriendly for retail merchants for a whole host of reasons,” Boyer said.
“Two-way streets, coupled with on-street parking and street trees tend to work together to slow automobile travel speeds, thereby creating a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment,” the report states.
The DIA is coordinating with the city Department of Public works to start the conversion on Forsyth and Laura streets in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a completion timeline has not been released.
Streets planned for conversion are Monroe, Adams and Forsyth streets from Pearl to Liberty streets; Pearl Street from the Riverwalk to State Street; Julia Street from Bay to State streets; and Hogan Street from Water to Union streets.
Main and Ocean streets would remain one-way.
In 2014, public works and the DIA estimated a $9.37 million cost for Downtown two-way street conversion. That includes $1.47 million in contingency money. The largest single cost will be $2.98 million to modify traffic signal equipment.
Boyer said the conversion will be paid for with tax increment financing or money from the DIA budget.