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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jun. 1, 202110:30 AM EST

$1.1 billion riverfront master plan proposed for Downtown Jacksonville

Developer Steve Atkins says he will ask the city for nearly $500 million in public support.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

Jacksonville developer Steve Atkins says he wants to lead a nearly $1.1 billion redevelopment of mostly city-owned property, including the former Jacksonville Landing, on a stretch of the Downtown Northbank riverfront. 

At an invitation-only event June 1 at the Florida Theatre, Atkins presented his “Riverfront Jacksonville” redevelopment plan for about 25 acres along the St. Johns River. 

Atkins, who is SouthEast Development Group LLC managing director, says he will try to persuade the city and Downtown Investment Authority to pay for $536 million in a public-private partnership to build 1.8 million square feet of space from the former Jacksonville Landing to the former Duval County Courthouse and old City Hall site, rebranded in 2020 by DIA as The Ford on Bay. 

A June 1 news release says the total development will have 2.3 million total square feet of programmable space including exterior facilities with a $559 million private investment. 

Steve Atkins, managing director of SouthEast Development Group LLC, presents the plans for Riverfront Jacksonville at the Florida Theatre on June 1.

Atkins said in a May 28 interview the master plan proposes commercial office space; mixed-use multifamily and for-sale condominium residential; retail; an “entertainment-oriented” hotel; a food hall; and a convention/events center.

“We think that this site is the most important stretch of riverfront area in our Downtown,” Atkins said. 

“It is, essentially, the face of our city. We think that a master plan will take it to its highest and best use.”

SouthEast’s site plan shows 15 acres of public park and plaza space on the riverfront anchoring the private development as well as nine river view corridors from the north.

“Obviously, there is a lot of focus and energy around parks and park space Downtown,” Atkins said. 

“What we’ve tried to be very mindful of is the importance of that to the community, how that builds equity within all parts of our community and what it does in terms of giving the public the access to the river that it really wants.”

The developer says Riverfront Jacksonville would comprise more than 755 new residential units and 208 hotel rooms.

Atkins proposes 10 structures in the three-phase development with mid-rise and high-rise towers for residential, commercial office and hotel space; a retail “paseo” plaza; a marina; and a 500,000-square-foot “technology-driven” convection center on The Ford on Bay site adjacent to the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront.

Atkins said subterranean “parking trays” would provide 3,000 spaces to accommodate residents, customers and guests for the Hyatt and new hotel.

According to Atkins, the underground parking will be designed for resiliency, holding flood and groundwater in the event of a storm surge and pumping it out after the river recedes.

The developer says he has been working on the master plan pitch for nearly two years with:

• Architectural firms Gensler; Nelson Worldwide Inc.; and SWA Architects. 

• Investment banks Goldman Sachs and Piper Sandler Companies.

• Civil engineer England-Thims & Miller Inc.

• Lobbyist The Southern Group.

Through SouthEast, Atkins completed a nearly $53 million restoration of the historic Barnett National Bank Building Downtown in 2019 and plans to break ground this year on a $70.4 million renovation to the Laura Street Trio across the street after years of delays. 

Atkins said that investment led him to create a team to lead a market and design study for the nearby riverfront.

The marina would comprise a two-level restaurant, retail and entertainment plaza.

“We started to understand that making what essentially will be a $120 million investment two blocks from the riverfront, we needed to be very mindful of what happened on the water,” Atkins said.

City buy-in

As of May 28, DIA staff and Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration have seen all of SouthEast’s master plan work, according to Atkins.

It is unclear if city officials are willing to accept Atkins’ request for about $500 million in tax money.

Atkins said Goldman Sachs and Piper Sandler together committed to financing the estimated $1.1 billion upfront if the city agrees to an incentives package to repay its share over time.

“So they (Goldman and Piper) recognize the need for a holistic approach,” Atkins said. 

“The city has a variety of tools at its disposal to do public investments. We’re not going to tell the city how to finance that, but what we are doing is bringing support for however, they might decide to (do that).”

With all but 2.5 acres targeted as publicly owned, Atkins also would have to convince city officials to change or integrate taxpayer-backed development plans active on the riverfront.

The DIA agreed in February 2020 with New York City-based developer Spandrel Development Partners LLC for a $136 million mixed-use retail and multifamily development at The Ford on Bay.

According to Atkins, Hyatt representatives support SouthEast’s master plan. 

Should the city sign on with SouthEast’s plan, Atkins said he would enter into negotiations with Hyatt to obtain its parking garage parcel for redevelopment.

Hyatt parent company Westmont Hospitality Group Inc. has a contractual right of first refusal for The Ford on Bay’s 220 E. Bay St. parcel with the city dating back to 1998. It has been involved in at least one proposal to put a convention or events center on the property. 

It is an issue DIA board members noted in February 2020 could slow progress in redeveloping the site as multifamily.

Westmont Hospitality was included in a development team led by Jacobs Engineering Group and KBJ Architects that tried twice to submit proposals to build a $550 million convention center next door on the Bay Street site.

A: Public green space with a 12-acre park. B: A mixed-use building with 120,000 square feet. C: A 14-level residential condominium. D: 208-room hotel. E: Commercial office space.

The Curry administration rejected one proposal after it scored the highest in a DIA request for proposals in 2018 while the other unsolicited proposal from July was not considered.

DIA officials have said little publicly about negotiations with Spandrel since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, and the final development agreement has not been presented to the DIA.

The city also awarded nearly $375,000 in stipends to three national firms in March for a competition to design a 4.5-acre public park at the former Landing site with a selection expected in October. 

The DIA and city have renamed the site Riverfront Plaza. DIA CEO Lori Boyer said a plan to put the remaining land on the market for private development after park construction is underway. 

Atkins said SouthEast’s team recognizes the park competition but did not commit to keeping the design selected by the DIA should the city agree to work with him. 

“I’m hoping that some of the best (park) ideas are things that we might be able to collaborate with folks on in this plan,” Atkins said.

F: Commercial office space. G: Exhibition, entertainment and technology center. H: 27-level, 410-unit residential tower. I: Marina, restaurant, retail and entertainment plaza.

Next steps

A spokesperson for Atkins said SouthEast said in a May 30 email the company plans to formally approach the DIA in July with a development proposal.

If backed by the city, Atkins said there would be at least 12 to 16 months of planning and approvals before site infrastructure work could start. 

He wants to break ground in two years with a five- to six-year development timeline.

“I don’t look at short-term opportunities, flipping things from time to time. I look at what the long-term goals are,” Atkins said. 

“The real truth about developers is they are only as successful as the teams that they build and the people they surround themselves with.”


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