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Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 1, 201412:00 PM EST

DIA's Aundra Wallace on Downtown: 'Beginning of a great transition'

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The morning after the Downtown Investment Authority board approved two key plans, CEO Aundra Wallace hit the street to begin selling the proposed framework to revitalize the urban core.

Wallace presented the high points of the Community Redevelopment Area and Business Improvement District plans Thursday at Downtown Vision’s quarterly operations meeting.

He said the plans passed on to the City Council are the result of 43 meetings since 2012.

“I’ve been doing this work for more than 20 years. This is the most comprehensive plan I’ve seen,” said Wallace. “There is something in the plan that touches everybody.”

The plan depends primarily on private sector investment, with the city taking the smaller role in terms of financing projects. The city will, however, utilize its authority over issues that are hindering commercial and retail development, such as reducing or eliminating one-way streets in the business district. Money to change several streets to two-way is included in Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed 2014-15 budget.

“Working to plan for two-way streets will allow us to begin to plan for more retail activity,” Wallace said.

He said the 35 percent vacancy rate for Downtown storefronts is partly due to the cost of renovation to get a space ready for a tenant.

While space is available for lease at $11-$16 per square foot, it can cost as much as $50 per square foot for build-out. Part of the redevelopment plan is a “retail enhancement program.”

Property owners and tenants would be offered a city grant of $20 per square foot to cover up to 50 percent of the tenant improvement cost. The tenant would be required to lease the space for at least five years and the public-sector investment would come with a lien on the space for the amount of the improvement grant.

Wallace said the city’s contribution could be looked at as a “securitized loan” with no principal or interest payments that would be forgiven when the tenant completed the lease.

If they didn’t, the grant would have to be repaid on a pro-rated basis.

Another element of the plan is to continue what is happening in Brooklyn, Wallace said.

The trend for residential and retail development along Riverside Avenue can be extended into LaVilla, the area west of the urban core near the Duval County Courthouse.

The focus for at least the first year should be developing Laura Street between the Jacksonville Landing and Hemming Plaza, he said. Redeveloping the Laura Street Trio and the former Barnett Bank Building will be key elements for success.

“If we do those, we’ve got a great Laura Street corridor,” Wallace said.

Wallace said the redevelopment plan is the starting point that can help make Downtown the center of business, retail and entertainment that it was decades ago, but it’s the first step.

“Don’t look at us to turn Downtown around in two years,” he said. “What we have is the beginning of a great transition.”

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