With The District on the Southbank moving forward, projects along the St. Johns River Northbank from the Landing to TIAA Bank Field are moving to the forefront.
As Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry heads into the final year of his first term in office, he says he’s firmly focused on turning around the Downtown Northbank.
“It’s been three years since I’ve been in office,” he said. “Downtown has been a focus, and we’ve taken significant bites out of the apple, but that’s not enough.”
Curry spoke with Jacksonville Daily Record/Record & Observer reporters Wednesday about what he envisions for Downtown, specifically along the Northbank of the St. Johns River.
Unlike the Southbank, with residential and office towers and ground-level retail and housing development, the Northbank and urban core remain a challenge for new investment.
Curry said he can spend more energy there now that reforms to the city pension system and children’s programs are behind him.
“We finally have a budget that can handle not only our basic services but invest in projects because of the pension reforms,” he said.
Curry’s team wants to turn around the Jacksonville Landing, a landmark structure that opened 31 years ago and finds itself featured on postcards, TV shots and murals that depict Downtown.
The riverfront mall is tangled in two lawsuits between the city, which owns the dirt underneath it, and the building’s owners, a Sleiman Enterprises company called Jacksonville Landing Investments Inc.
“The Landing is the front door. It’s our front porch, the entrée to the core of Downtown,” Curry said. “It’s been mismanaged.”
Although both lawsuits began under his watch, Curry said Toney Sleiman’s companies battled with previous administrations since they purchased the buildings from Rouse-Jacksonville in 2003.
Curry wants control of the Landing buildings at 2 Independent Drive near the Wells Fargo Center and SunTrust Tower.
Curry said his staff and Sleiman’s team have talked the past two years, but are shielded by a nondisclosure agreement Sleiman requested.
“But that’s not a reason not to pursue what’s in the best interest of the public and their land,” Curry said.
A conceptual drawing of Curry’s vision for the 6-acre property, should the city gain control, show an urban park with some private development to replace the existing complex.
Curry called the drawing a launching pad for discussion about the property’s future.
“This is the beginning of the discussion and the good part about this is some like it and some criticize it, and that’s OK,” Curry said.
“That was the point of all this, versus the conversation just being the city and the Landing are battling,” he said.
Curry said he thinks the two sides can come to an agreement, “in a way that is respectful of each other.”
“It’s not where we are right now, but I think that’s still possible,” he said.
After Curry took office in 2015, the city sued JLI for failing to close on the $4.7 million sale of a parking lot adjacent to the Landing.
The city claims the company took possession of the land anyway in 2007 and failed to pay property taxes, despite collecting parking fees.
Earlier this month, city attorneys decided to amend the city’s complaint and are working with the company to come to a repayment agreement and again take control of the 1.6-acre site.
In November, JLI sued the city in a separate matter.
Both sides have accused the other of breaching terms of the 1985 lease agreement. The city believes JLI isn’t keeping up with the maintenance of the buildings, while the company insists Curry’s administration intentionally is letting the surrounding property go to waste.
The unfinished Berkman Plaza II condominium building along East Bay Street is in Curry’s line of sight.
“It’s an eyesore, it’s a blemish and it’s embarrassing for Downtown,” he said Wednesday.
Construction on the project stopped in 2007 after an adjoining parking garage collapsed during construction, killing one and injuring several workers.
Curry said the owner, Choate Construction Co., told his administration recently it expects to close soon on a deal for the site.
“We’ve made it very clear to them that if this deal doesn’t close, the city will act,” he said. “Whatever that looks like.”
Curry declined to say what that action could be.
When asked if that meant condemning the structure or purchasing it directly from Choate, he said. “I think all options are on the table.”
“The most important thing for your readers to understand is that it’s not an option for that to sit like it has for another year,” he said.
Curry said he believes in letting the private sector dictate development, but that his administration has given the company ample time to figure it out.
He would not say how soon the city could “take action,” other than that he is confident the company will close on its pending deal this year.
A new convention center
Last summer, the city earmarked $8 million to demolish the old City Hall and Duval County Courthouse buildings along East Bay Street.
The structures were vacated after a new City Hall and Duval County Courthouse were built.
On Wednesday, the city unsealed bids from contractors responding to a Request for Proposal to demolish the buildings.
Morrisville, North Carolina-based Environmental Holdings Group LLC submitted the lowest bid, at $7.985 million, and could be selected to perform the work.
The city is seeking another set of bids for companies who could tear down the buildings and redevelop the property into a new convention center and hotel.
Those bids are due in August.
Curry said issuing simultaneous RFPs gives the city options and demonstrates a sense of urgency.
“If we get a proposal that looks like it works and we can move and it makes sense, then let’s go,” he said. “If we get proposals that are going to take time, we’re going to move and demolish.”
Although his team can’t speak with interested developers during the RFP process, Curry said plenty of companies showed interest beforehand.
Pursuing Lot J
On June 8, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced nearly $1.5 billion in proposed Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants for projects across the country.
Jacksonville was not among the winners.
In November, the city along with the Florida Department of Transportation and JaxPort applied for a $25 million grant to help finance the removal of the Hart Bridge exit ramps coming into Downtown.
“We didn’t get the grant, but we’re pursuing additional federal grants,” Curry said.
He said the process has begun to secure a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The state earmarked $12.5 million to remove the ramps and Curry plans to set aside the same amount in his upcoming budget proposal to City Council.
“With that, we can start what we call Phase I,” he said.
Curry maintains removing the ramps and grading the expressway into Gator Bowl Boulevard will benefit the Talleyrand port area.
“There’s also economic development value for Downtown,” he said. “Both points matter.”
The economic development is related to Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s $2.5 billion proposal to redevelop the Metropolitan Park area, the Shipyards and Parking Lot J west of TIAA Bank Field into a mixed-use, entertainment-focused complex.
It would include hotels, office towers, entertainment venues and some residential components.
The team is partnering with Baltimore-based The Cordish Cos., which has a track record of developing sports and entertainment complexes near major league sports venues.
Curry said negotiations continue between the Downtown Investment Authority and Jaguars President Mark Lamping on the first part of the project, which is developing Lot J.
“We’re as ready to go as they are,” he said.
Responding to public suggestions that investment should be made in the urban core rather than the sports complex to the east, Curry said Khan’s project will lead to more development overall.
“We have to think big,” Curry said. “If it’s there, they will come.”
He said the developments will make for a stronger Northbank from one end to the other.
“People that are big believers will experience the entirety of Downtown as it catches fire.”