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Jax Daily Record Friday, Feb. 22, 201904:30 AM EST

Mixed City Council reaction to Jacksonville Landing deal

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The $18 million plan for city to take possession of the Downtown shopping center must be approved by council.
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

Jacksonville City Council members offered mixed reactions Thursday to an $18 million plan that could see the city of Jacksonville gaining control of the Jacksonville Landing and demolishing it.

The city announced Wednesday it is resolving a two-year legal fight with the Jacksonville Landing’s owner, Sleiman Enterprises Inc., by offering a $15 million buyout of the company’s long-term lease.

The agreement includes $1.5 million to address tenant subleases, relocation expenses and other costs and $1.5 million to demolish the structures.

The agreement and the other spending measures need approval from council members through legislation being introduced Tuesday.

The bill will go through the usual six-week legislative process that includes two public hearings with council standing committees followed by the 19-member body taking a final vote, expected in April or May.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said in an email Thursday that the administration didn’t have any other details to share.

The administration declined to answer questions about how it calculated the $1.5 million to pay for Landing tenants’ subleases and relocation costs, or how it settled on $1.5 million in demolition costs.

No timeline is available beyond the legislative process.

Calls and emails to Sleiman Enterprises were not returned.

The Landing opened in 1987 at 2 Independent Drive W. along the Downtown Northbank.

The mall had early success with a mix of restaurants and retail tenants but has declined since.

Sleiman Enterprises bought the buildings in 2003. It last announced redevelopment plans in 2014.

At the time, the estimated $55 million to $75 million plan sought $11.8 million from the city to improve infrastructure.

Mayor Alvin Brown included the line item in his proposed 2014-15 Capital Improvement Program budget, but it was moved by council members to the following fiscal year.

Brown served one term before losing his re-election bid to Curry, who pushed the item “beyond five years” in his first CIP budget during the 2015-16 budget cycle.

Brosche questions timing

Council member and mayoral candidate Anna Lopez Brosche questioned the timing of the deal.

“While progress on the Jacksonville Landing is great for the City of Jacksonville, it is unfortunate that it took Mayor Curry over 3½ years and an upcoming election to strike a sweet deal on the backs of taxpayers and score an endorsement from Sleiman,” she said through her campaign spokesperson, Ryan Wiggins.

“In the words of Curry’s current Chief of Staff, then campaign manager, Brian Hughes in 2015 regarding a then proposed similar deal between Toney Sleiman and former Mayor Alvin Brown, ‘throwing money, nearly $12 million, at special interests while kids are being gunned down in the street […] is simply outrageous, it’s disgusting,’ ” the statement said.

Toney Sleiman is the president of Sleiman Enterprises.

A sign at the Jacksonville Landing on Thursday tells visitors to check a website for information.

Council members await review

The Landing is in council District 7, represented by council member Reginald Gaffney.

On Thursday, Gaffney said he supports what he’s heard.

“I think it’s a good day for Jacksonville that we can put this issue behind us,” Gaffney said.

“I know Toney Sleiman did his best with the property, but I also know this city is trying to move forward,” he said.

Gaffney said it was best for Sleiman and the city to terminate the lease and go their separate ways.

“This gives us an opportunity to engage the city of Jacksonville so they can tell us what they want to see down there,” he said.

Gaffney said he’d like to see the property turned into a mixed-use development, “but that’s not for me to decide, that’s what my colleagues have to agree on.”

According to legislation tied to the settlement, the $18 million would be funded through short-term debt.

Council member Lori Boyer said that’s a common strategy the city uses to fund additional capital improvement projects outside of what was approved in the general fund budget.

“That could be converted to long-term debt eventually,” she said.

The city typically will go to the bond markets to seek long-term debt solutions in larger amounts at least once a year.

That debt is used to pay for capital improvement projects as needed through the five-year Capital Improvement Program.

About $100 million in debt is authorized in the current Capital Improvement Program budget for projects planned over the next five years.

“Just because we have access to that debt, it doesn’t mean we’re spending that money right away,” Boyer said. “We pull it down as we need to.”

She said she was happy to see the city coming to terms with Sleiman after years of legal fights.

“I think it’s wonderful for the city,” Boyer said. “The fact that we are getting beyond the current litigation is a positive thing for the future of our city and the riverfront.”

Council member Matt Schellenberg said he is cautious about the proposal.

“I think it’s good that the city is paying Toney off because something needed to happen,” he said. “But before we demolish another building, I want to see a plan and the total cost.”

Schellenberg said he wants more details about how much the project will continue to cost taxpayers once the buildings are razed.

“If there’s no plan to develop it immediately, I’d like to see something like a park there for a little while,” he said. “But it costs money to landscape and maintain the property.”

Council President Aaron Bowman did not return phone calls Thursday.

A conceptual city design for the Landing property.

Developing Downtown

The Downtown Investment Authority is responsible for allocating development rights within its boundaries and approving an economic development agreement that includes the city spending taxpayer money on a public-private partnership. 

That process can take up to a year.

The Downtown Development Review Board also would need to approve design standards when those plans are presented, which would be a two-month process at least.

Last summer, a rendering from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department showed the property converted to a mixed-use development anchored by two towers and an urban park.

Curry said the designs were conceptual and “a launching pad for discussion.”

“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 in June.

“That was the point of all this, versus the conversation just being the city and the Landing are battling.”

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