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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jun. 11, 202110:27 AM EST

LaVilla town house project wins conceptual design approval 

Johnson Commons is a 91-unit community planned on 3.45 acres next to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

Johnson Commons LLC’s for-sale town house project in LaVilla is a step closer to breaking ground. 

The Downtown Development Review Board voted 7-0 on June 10 to grant conceptual design approval for the 91-unit community on 3.45 acres next to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park.

The three-story town houses are a joint project of  JWB Real Estate Capital LLC and Corner Lot Development Group.

Johnson Commons finished second to Vestcor Companies Inc. in a 2019 Downtown Investment Authority request for proposals to develop the city-owned site, bounded by Adams, Lee, Houston and Forsyth streets.

The DIA allowed JWB and Corner Lot to take over the project in March after Vestcor subsidiary VC LaVilla Townhomes Ltd. abandoned its plans and returned the land to the city. 

According to Johnson Commons, the town houses are designed as shot-gun-style houses with gabbled roofs, inspired by LaVilla’s architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was a thriving and predominately African American neighborhood.

In its report, DDRB staff recommends Johnson Commons put more varying materials and design elements on the homes’ facades before it returns for final review. 

In its report, DDRB staff recommends Johnson Commons put more varying materials and design elements on the homes’ facades.

Board members Christian Harden and Brenna Durden said they agreed with the recommendation.

Driver, McAfee, Hawthorne & Diebenow partner and attorney Cyndy Trimmer, who represents Johnson Commons, said the developer plans to return with a mix of siding styles. The town house proposal includes attached one-car garages, some with balconies and access to the park, which soon will be redesigned and rebuilt.

DDRB staff also wants the developer to return with more landscape buffering between the back of the homes and a community amenity area which Johnson Commons says will have a swimming pool.

Durden said middle-market housing was one of her focuses when she was a DIA board member  —  what the city refers to in its official LaVilla Redevelopment Strategy as “The Missing Middle.”

The development agreement says the base price of the homes is $250,250 with Johnson Commons required to give the city 50% of the net sale proceeds above that.

Durden complimented the JWB and Corner Lot team members for addressing what the city considers a need. 

“I’m a big fan of the missing middle,” she said. “I think it’s an essential part of our Downtown and the housing that we need to provide.”

Johnson Commons will have to return to DDRB for approval of its second phase within five years to comply with its deal with the city.

Johnson Commons features gabbled roofs inspired by LaVilla’s architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The developer is considering 10,000 square feet of stand-alone retail or a multifamily residential project with at least 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Durden said adding retail is another important part of the city’s LaVilla strategy and she asked why the project’s second phase has a five-year deadline instead of a single-phase development.

“The intent is all 91 units of the town home product would come online at once. That will not be phased, and it will give that a little bit of time for absorption so that can get to occupancy before the retail comes online,” Trimmer said. 

“We really do need more density (in LaVilla) right there before it (retail) would be viable, and we don’t want to impose something that’s going to fail from day one.”

Landscape architectural firm Marquis Latimer + Halback and environmental and engineering firm GAI Consultants worked on the site plan, according to documents submitted to DDRB staff.

If the project is approved, Johnson Commons would make a $150,000 donation to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park and install LaVilla heritage signs. 

DIA documents say Johnson Commons would take ownership of the site at no cost if the deal is approved. The property was appraised in 2019 at $3.58 million.

According to JWB Real Estate Capital President Alex Sifakis, the development team plans an $18 million investment in the town houses.

Board member Craig Davisson abstained from the vote June 10 because his architectural firm, studio9, has done contract work for JWB. Board member Frederick Jones was absent from the meeting.

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