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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Nov. 11, 202105:40 PM EST

Pushback on Vestcor Lofts at Cathedral design

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The Downtown Development Review Board postponed the project’s conceptual approval Nov. 10 after concerns from the nonprofit Cathedral District-Jax Inc.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Neighborhood residents and Downtown Development Review Board members spoke out Nov. 10 against designs for The Vestcor Companies’ nearly $29 million proposed renovation and addition to the historic YWCA Building in the Cathedral District.

Leaders of Cathedral District-Jax Inc., the Downtown neighborhood’s nonprofit renewal organization, said the issue is not Vestcor’s plans for the YWCA building but the “suburban apartment design” of the new construction.

Cathedral District-Jax CEO and President Ginny Myrick told the DDRB at its Nov. 10 meeting that the nonprofit does not think the project’s new construction meets the Cathedral District design standards approved earlier this year.

Myrick said she met with Vestcor leadership three times about the concerns and the company did not change the general design.

“So, they say they’ll work on it but I don’t have confidence that they’re going to do the work that we think needs to be done,” Myrick said.

The DDRB, which reviews Downtown projects for zoning code compliance and design guidelines, agreed with the nonprofit and tabled its vote on the conceptual design until December.

Vestcor has been trying for nearly two years to secure state low-income housing tax credits to help finance the 120-unit mixed-income project. It would provide units to low- and middle-income residents as well as market-rate apartments. 

The developer plans to convert the three-story YWCA, also called the former Community Connections building, into 29 apartments. It would connect via a walkway with the new construction of 91 units.

The two parcels are on 1.52 acres bounded by Church, Liberty and Duval streets and Shields Place.

Neighborhood residents and leaders said the design for the Lofts at Cathedral is too similar to the architecture of Vestcor’s other multifamily projects in LaVilla, Brooklyn and Murray Hill.

Although the DDRB staff recommended conceptual approval, its report released Nov. 3 concluded the design does not meet standards outlined in the Cathedral District design guidelines.

The nonprofit and DDRB staff said the lack of ground-floor retail, amenity space or a leasing office at Duval and Liberty streets detracted from the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood Cathedral District-Jax is trying to maintain and build.

The staff report also said the new construction facade was “relatively flat” and Vestcor should add features like balconies, bays, alcoves, awnings and light fixtures to match the Cathedral District’s historic character.

Vestcor paid $1.4 million in September 2019 to Cathedral District-Jax subsidiary Billy Goat Hill Inc. for the YWCA building.

Myrick and Cathedral District leaders said they want Vestcor to change the design of the flat roof, which they say is “particularly reflective of a suburban apartment design,” to be more consistent with the historic neighborhood.

The nonprofit wants Vestcor and its architect, Group 4 Design, to redraft the plan to connect the YWCA building to the new construction with more than an uncovered walkway.

The 120-unit apartment complex will add new construction to a renovated historic YWCA building bounded by Church, Liberty and Duval streets and Shields Place.

The group also called for at least 50% of the 130 parking spaces in the plan to be underground. The existing plan has 30% of the spaces subterranean. 

Board member Brenna Durden said she agrees with Cathedral District-Jax leadership but she would like all of the apartment parking to be underground.

Durden and other board members said the project needs to be sent back to the architects for a redesign.

“The fact that it’s affordable is a great thing. We appreciate that, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same (design) that Vestcor has done in other places,” Durden said. Jacksonville-based Vestcor’s Lofts project typically serve a mix of incomes.

“A little bit of change to the facade with materials is not adequate.”

After the board postponed the vote, Vice Chair J. Brent Allen said the state in which the project came to the board “kind of struck a nerve.”

“We took an hour-and-a-half of taxpayers’ dollars to take up the issue,” Allen said.

“Maybe in the future if it’s on the agenda and the board feels so strongly about it, push it to a vote.”

Board Chair Trevor Lee, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said he would have voted against the design had it come to a vote.

“It did not respond to this board’s comments and it didn’t respond to the neighborhood that it’s in,” he said.

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