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Jax Daily Record Friday, Sep. 11, 202005:20 AM EST

Restarting Downtown's North Core: Millions in investment planned

"I think that bringing these old buildings back to life is really important for Downtown," says Alex Sifakis, president of JWB Real Estate Capital.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

Trees and weeds grow through the floorboards on the fourth and fifth levels of the vacant office building at 218 W. Church St.

Alex Sifakis, president of JWB Real Estate Capital, said nature has “reasserted itself” inside the dilapidated historic structure, but he sees potential.

“I think that bringing these old buildings back to life is really important for Downtown. I mean, it looks like a fricking disaster, but we’re (JWB) used to this,” Sifakis said. 

The five-story, 26,500-square-foot building constructed in 1924 was purchased by JWB on Aug. 26 for $675,000. It’s the company’s latest investment in what Sifakis and three other development groups have collectively branded Downtown’s “North Core.”

JWB, Augustine Development Group, ACE JAX LLC and husband-and-wife team Jim and Ellen Wiss paid a combined $15.38 million for historic buildings and parcels in the Downtown neighborhood since January 2018. The four development firms have announced a total of $86.1 million in plans, with more in the works.

A redeveloped 218 W. Church St. would comprise apartments with commercial on the first floor.

The North Core is bordered by State, Broad, Church and Main streets, Sifakis said. It’s part of the Church District in the Downtown Overlay.

Sifakis said while touring the West Church Street building Sept. 4 that he expects the North Core’s planned retail, restaurants and residential to be successful because it’s walkable for Downtown’s 56,000 workers, its proximity to City Hall, James Weldon Johnson Park and civic activities and its historic characteristics. 

“You take any part of Downtown that already has historic buildings and that kind of density, and you do five city blocks altogether, you’re going to have a true neighborhood,” Sifakis said. “And so we focused on this because there were already developers doing projects in the area.

“We (JWB) have bought probably 4,000 properties in Jacksonville and most of them are beat up,” Sifakis said. “They’re the worst properties in the neighborhood and you bring them back and make them the best. And that’s what we’re planning on doing here.”

Investors Jim and Ellen Wiss acquired nearly a full city block bounded by Beaver, Julia, Ashley and Hogan streets. They are planning a $30 million mixed-used development.

Jim and Ellen Wiss, who acquired nearly a full city block from First Baptist Church in February for restoration and redevelopment, said the historic buildings drew them to the North Core.

But Jim Wiss said Sept. 3 that historic buildings alone are not enough to make the neighborhood viable. He expects a mix of new construction and adaptive reuse. 

“Now, obviously the historic buildings are important. That goes without saying,” Wiss said. 

The Wisses plan to incorporate new construction into their redevelopment and restoration of the historic former First Baptist Church buildings.

“Because a lot of these historic buildings aren’t either large enough or their design criteria just doesn’t work to make a full-fledged community out of them,” Wiss said.

Purchases and plans

In August, JWB acquired the Federal Reserve Bank Building from the Wisses at 424 N. Hogan St. and bought 218 W. Church St. a few weeks later. 

That followed the company’s purchase of the Seminole Building, home to the Sweet Pete’s candy store, at 400 N. Hogan St.

Plans released Sept. 3 in Downtown Development Review Board meeting documents show a restaurant space and 24 studio and one-bedroom apartments in the 218 W. Church St. property. There also are two mercantile suites.

Plans for the Federal Reserve Bank Building at 424 N. Hogan St. include a restaurant, business and banquet space and an exterior courtyard for dining.

JWB’s plan for the Federal Reserve Bank Building redevelopment includes a restaurant, business and banquet space and an exterior courtyard for dining.

The Wisses bought the former First Baptist property through EJPC LLC.

It’s bounded by Beaver, Julia, Ashley and Hogan streets and includes a four-story, 20,000-square-foot structure built in 1954 and a two-story, 10,000-square-foot building completed in 1947.

Jim Wiss said they are planning a $30 million mixed-use development.

Augustine Development Group, led by president Bryan Greiner, and its development partners, own two historic sites in the North Core: The 18-story former Independent Life Building at 233 W. Duval St., purchased in September 2019, and the former Ambassador Hotel at 420 N. Julia St., bought in July 2019.

The St. Augustine-based firm plans a $30 million adaptive reuse of Independent Life, including a 21,000-square-foot grocery store and 140 market-rate apartments. Amenities include a rooftop terrace, pool and lounge.

Augustine Development’s $15 million renovation of the Ambassador through Axis Hotels LLC will establish a 127-room La Quinta Inn and Suites.

ACE JAX LLC, controlled by Petra Management Inc. Vice President Elias Hionides and Christian Allen of Atlantic Beach, bought the vacant Jones Brothers Furniture Co. Building at 520 N. Hogan St. and the Western Union Building at 502 N. Hogan St. in January 2018.

Hionides’ plans dating back to May 2018 show retail, office and restaurant space at both buildings along with 28 apartments in the Jones Brothers building.

Transportation and communication

Sifakis said North Core developers talk often and that he has been in frequent communication with Augustine Development on its plan for the Independent Life Building.

They’ve made deals to develop the neighborhood at a faster pace. 

Jim Wiss said the bank renovation was “a bit small” to fit into their development plans for the North Core, but they knew its restoration would benefit their project.

JWB Real Estate Capital President Alex Sifakis outside the Federal Reserve Bank Building at 424 N. Hogan St.

“So, part of our discussion with Alex (Sifakis) was, ‘Yeah, we’ll sell it, but we’re not selling it for you to hold it. We’re selling it for it to be redeveloped because that’s our goal, too,” Wiss said. “And if your timetable’s faster than us, then we’d just as soon you do it.’”

Sifakis said JWB will spend “a lot” on its redevelopment plans, but the company is still determining a budget for what is likely to be a 1½ to 2-year project.

Sifakis and Jim Wiss said North Core development will need to find more parking, but the Wisses are looking at First Baptist Church’s nearby unused parking garages as a solution. 

Wiss said the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Rosa Parks Transit Station hub at 201 W. Union St., which includes an elevated Skyway station, is a draw for developers and allows for expanded access for restaurant-goers, shoppers and residents.

The east side of the station is being demolished for transportation-oriented development, JTA Communications Director David Cawton II said June 22.

“That corridor will allow for parking, as well as mass transit of some sort,” Wiss said.

Wiss says there is demand for the urban lifestyle envisioned for the North Core and Downtown Jacksonville.

“We believe in urban cores. We believe that is a lifestyle that a lot of people really want. A lot of, especially younger people and older people, don’t want that suburbia apartment building or communities. They want something that has a little bit more of an urban flair. They can walk downstairs to the coffee shop. They can walk around the block to the restaurant. 

“Most great cities, most good cities, have very strong urban cores. We believe Jacksonville will have it. It’s a great city,” Wiss said.

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