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Joel McEachin
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Nov. 24, 201512:00 PM EST

Houston Street Manor apartments in LaVilla to be complete by December 2017

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The future of LaVilla will preserve what’s left of the Downtown neighborhood’s past.

That was the result of a workshop Monday with the Downtown Development Review Board and developers of Houston Street Manor, a 72-unit, seven-story apartment building for seniors at Houston and Jefferson streets near the Duval County Courthouse.

The review board approved the conceptual site plan Nov. 3 and the Downtown Investment Authority approved a resolution Nov. 18 granting development rights for the project to Sarasota-based Beneficial Communities.

It will be the first residential development in LaVilla since the area was cleared of all but a few buildings 20 years ago as part of the River City Renaissance urban revitalization project.

The workshop was scheduled to resolve the question of whether Houston Street should be widened to accommodate the apartment building and still maintain a vehicle- and pedestrian-friendly environment.

It was noted during the review that while Houston Street is a two-way street, it is too narrow to conform with existing building codes.

City Historic Planner Joel McEachin said LaVilla property records are some of the oldest in Jacksonville.

He brought to the workshop copies of plat maps of the area west of Downtown and east of Interstate 95 that date before the Civil War.

McEachin said maintaining Houston Street at its original width of about 16 feet preserves the legacy of the neighborhood.

“The streetscape is what we have left of history,” he said. “We need to work with what’s there.”

Jimmy Johns, president of Solid Rock Engineering Consultants, which will prepare the site for the building, said the old property records offer more than one version of the street layout in LaVilla.

That raised questions about the maximum possible width of Houston Street.

“It was a challenge to identify the right-of-way width. It’s from 26 feet to 28 feet, depending on which record you look at,” he said.

Landscape architect Janet Whitmill is designing the streetscape surrounding the building.

She’s planning to install a variety of plants and shrubs along the Houston Street side of the building, including a “living wall” of creeping fig.

Some landscaping may be installed into beds in the sidewalk; planter boxes also are an option, she said.

Since the concept for the project was approved, architect Steve Silvera changed the design to widen the original narrow balconies along the Houston Street side of the building to 5 feet.

An awning will be installed over the sidewalk along Jefferson Street, which he said would be the “primary pedestrian area around the building.”

Dan Ionescu, project manager for Beneficial Communities, said in addition to a $115,000 local government contribution commitment from the Jacksonville Housing Authority, the $18.6 million apartment development has been approved for $15.8 million in tax credits from the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

That award puts the project on the clock, since under the terms of the state tax credit, the project must be completed within 24 months.

“It will be open by December 2017,” said Ionescu.

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