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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Apr. 4, 201805:38 AM EST

Nonprofit buys Cathedral District property

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Former Community Connections site takes step toward becoming housing.
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

A nonprofit bought the former Community Connections of Jacksonville Inc. property Thursday and wants to spark redevelopment in the Downtown Cathedral District.

Billy Goat Hill Inc. bought the 1.52-acre site at 325 E. Duval St. Community Connections shut down in December 2016. 

The property is next to Saint John’s Cathedral and is bounded by Duval, Liberty and Church streets and Shields Place.

Billy Goat Hill Inc. is an affiliate of the Episcopal Cathedral and is a nod to the name of the highest point in Downtown. 

Ginny Myrick

The nonprofit is led by former Jacksonville City Council member and government affairs consultant Ginny Myrick. She previously managed the purchasing and redevelopment project through another church-backed nonprofit, Cathedral District Jax Inc. 

Until it closed, Community Connections focused on sheltering homeless women and children. It began in 1911 as the YWCA. 

Myrick’s group plans to partner with a developer to transform the vacant property and convert an existing building into an apartment complex over the next year to 18 months. 

She said the nonprofit began moving toward buying the land after Community Connections shut down.

“At many junctures, we thought the deal was dead,” Myrick said Wednesday. “Then all the sudden it turned around.”

A long road

When Community Connections failed to make mortgage payments in early 2017, four liens were placed on the property, complicating any potential sale.  

“Our arrangement was to help Community Connections get out of debt,” Myrick said. 

She said 11 attorneys from Jacksonville law firms offered pro bono services to help the nonprofit work through a complex deal that included negotiating settlements on four mortgages with the city, state and a financial institution.

She said the most prominent commitments came from attorneys Joanna White and Bobby Brown at Foley & Lardner LLP and from Dan Bean, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP.

“We had volumes of documents from several different entities to review,” she said.  

The city held the first lien holder position on one mortgage with an unpaid balance of $134,279 from a 2010 Home Investment Partnership program loan. The city also had ties to a 2010 State Housing Initiative Partnership program loan with an unpaid balance of $235,200. 

The state held the first position on another $288,200 State Apartment Initiative Loan. 

Those mortgages were tied to most of the property.  

A small administration building on the site was bound by a fourth mortgage held by Valley National Bancorp., which began foreclosure proceedings in September. 

According to a complaint filed Sept. 20 in U.S. District Court, attorneys for Valley National stated Community Connections owed it $283,302 in unpaid principal, interest, and other fees. 

Although Myrick declined to say how much Billy Goat Hill Inc. paid for the property, records from the Duval County Clerk of Court recorded Monday show the nonprofit took part in nine separate transactions late last week. 

Billy Goat Hill Inc. assumed both city-backed mortgages from Community Connections for $369,479.  The state-backed mortgage was paid off for a reduced amount of $247,028.

Myrick said Valley National Bancorp. agreed to settle Community Connections’ debt for less than the $283,302 balance. 

The nonprofit secured two deeds for the property from Community Connections for $870,608 in separate transactions. Myrick said this amount is forgivable with no repayment and annual reductions so long as a set of deed restrictions tied to both the city-backed and state-backed loans are adhered to.

Billy Goat Hill Inc. also took out a $681,000 mortgage backed by the Episcopal Church Building Fund on the property, which Myrick said retired the liens on the property and covered closing costs.

She said the Saint John’s Episcopal Church Vestry supported the loan from the building fund, saying it showed “a tremendous vote of confidence for the
project.”

Myrick said the nonprofit has 24 months before it has to make payments on the loan. 

Redevelopment obstacles

Obtaining ownership was the latest step Myrick and the nonprofit have taken over the last year and a half to redevelop the property. 

Because most the buildings on the site were developed in 1949, the structures are considered contributing properties in the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District as listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the summer, Myrick reached a compromise with the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission and council allowing only the L-shaped portion of the main building to remain as a historic landmark, giving developers the OK to raze the rest of the property. 

The nonprofit also needed permission to alter deed restrictions placed on the property’s use, which were tied to the loans with the city and the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

The previous deed restriction was for 100 percent homeless housing for 65 years.

As part of the new deed restrictions, the development must now set aside 15 percent of the units in any development for what the Florida Housing Finance Corp. refers to as low-income housing for the first 10 years of the project.

The homes would be reserved for individuals making between 51 percent and 80 percent of $47,000, the average median income in Duval County.

“We envision the Cathedral District being the home for the workforce of Downtown,” Myrick said. 

She said outside of other apartment projects under construction in the LaVilla neighborhood, “There’s nothing catering to the average person working in Downtown.”

Ginny Myrick envisions the transformed site as a catalyst to more residential that caters to the Downtown workforce.

The Next phase

The next step is finding a developer. 

Chase Properties President Mike Balanky intended to help develop the land, but has backed out to focus on other projects, Myrick said. 

Balanky said recently he would reconsider the project after Myrick and the cathedral closed on the property.

“We would love for him to come back officially, and we’re still having those conversations,” Myrick said. 

She said she’s received solicitations from five other development groups expressing interest.  

The plan is to build 115 to 120 apartments, possibly with some retail space on the ground floor, she said. “The main focus is housing.” 

Myrick said the nonprofit had performed a Phase I and Phase II environmental analysis, which she said, “came out clean.”

Myrick said the nonprofit is in the early design stages.

Previously Washington, D.C., architect Torti Gallas + Partners provided pro-bono conceptual drawings when the project was before the Historic Preservation
Commission. The firm also assisted with a master plan for the Cathedral District. 

Because of the historic landmark designation, Myrick said developers understand they will have to blend old with new.

“We want something that feels like it’s been there for a long time,” Myrick said.

She said it was the first catalytic project her group has identified. “We want it to reflect the history of this beautiful neighborhood,” she said. 

State corporate records show that Billy Goat Hill Inc. is led by directors Katherine Moorehead, David Busse and Myrick. The Very Rev. Moorehead is the 10th dean of Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral. Busse is executive director of Christian Healing Ministries Inc.

Any development would also need approval from the Downtown Development Review Board. If the nonprofit wants city-backed financial incentives for the project, the Downtown Investment Authority would need to sign off, too. Council members may also need to approve it. 

Those steps are about a year off, Myrick said.

“Now that we’ve closed, we can begin to bring this project to life,” she said. 

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