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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 24, 201905:20 AM EST

The Cawton Report: City Council approves Ambassador Hotel deal

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Group is redeveloping property into a La Quinta Inn and adding a neighboring apartment community.
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

City Council approved an agreement Tuesday that will result in the redevelopment of the old Ambassador Hotel in Downtown Jacksonville into a La Quinta Inn and Suites along with 220 apartments.  

Council members voted unanimously to approve an economic development deal with Axis Hotels LLC that includes $6.4 million in city-backed financial incentives.

Through Axis Hotels LLC, Augustine Development Group plans to convert the historic structure at 420 N. Julia St. into a 127-room La Quinta and build 220 apartments and a parking structure on an adjacent vacant lot.

Augustine Development Group President Bryan Greiner said the group secured a deal a few months ago to bring the La Quinta flag to Downtown Jacksonville.

Axis Hotels purchased 1.5 acres of property that comprise the block bordered by Duval, Julia, Church and Pearl Streets in July for $5.4 million.

To make room for the apartments, a former bank building at 404 N. Julia St. will be demolished. That structure was built in 1926, but unlike the Ambassador, it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Greiner said his group will begin demolition of the bank building within two months.

Interior work has begun in the Ambassador Hotel.

“We’ve been under construction for the past 60 days,” Greiner said.

“We started demolition in November, began the asbestos remediation and we’re planning on continuing that for another 30 days or so,” he said.

Greiner said the interior was in poor condition when the group took control of the property.

“But the structure of the building is very sound,” said Greiner. “It was very well built so we’ll keep all the existing brick and clean up the exterior.”

“It’s going to be beautiful when it’s all finished.”

Greiner said the multifamily portion of the project will be developed with The Vestcor Companies.

“They’re very well known in the community, have done some really high-profile projects and we’re very pleased to have them as a partner,” he said.

When completed, the 220 apartments will include one- and two-bedroom units, offering amenities including a pool and fitness center.

He said project construction would take about 14 months.

The incentives package approved Tuesday includes a $1.5 million Redevelopment Completion Grant from the Downtown Historic Preservation and Revitalization Trust Fund that will be applied toward the estimated $15 million cost to redevelop the Ambassador Hotel.

That grant will not be made until the hotel receives a certificate of occupancy.

To help offset the cost of the apartments and a parking structure, the city is providing a $4.9 million Recapture Enhanced Value Grant to be paid over 15 years. The grant is an annual rebate of 75 percent of the ad valorem taxes generated by the estimated $38 million construction project.

City Council to present budget priorities

Discussions about next year’s city budget won’t begin until later this summer after the spring elections are settled and a new City Council is installed.

Legislation introduced Tuesday outlines several priorities council President Aaron Bowman wants integrated into the 2019-20 budget.

The mayor would have a list of priorities from council members before a budget is crafted.

It’s a throwback to how past councils approached budget discussions.

The mayor’s office submits its budget about mid-July, and the council Finance Committee spends most of August going line-by-line through each department’s proposed spending.

The change in 2019 is part of Bowman’s strategic vision he wants carried out by councils.

Through resolution 2019-62, he wants to address four areas of the budget.

Those priorities include increased investment in public safety and crime prevention; more funding for parks, recreation and community services; money to address homelessness and to encourage affordable housing; and increased spending on infrastructure and transportation needs.

 Council wants the mayor’s office to “investigate the efficacy” of citywide after-school, mentoring, summer and parenting skills programs, as well as extracurricular activities in schools and programs for ex-offenders and other assistance geared towards adults.

Council is requesting the mayor place $1 million into a “Designated Contingency for Crime Prevention” to be appropriated by council based on recommendations received from a Task Force on Safety and Crime Reduction.

The second priority, “Quality of Life,” is aimed at increasing funding for the city’s Public Works and the Parks, Recreation and Community Services departments.

Council wants to increase the Parks department’s budget for maintenance, upgrades and repairs for existing parks from $2 million to $3 million while also providing an additional $125,000 to hire more security guards at public parks.

 For Public Works, council wants to boost the department’s litter pickup budget to $1.5 million from about $857,000.

The next issue centers on homelessness in and around Downtown. Bowman said it was one of his top priorities after his election as council president last summer.

Council is seeking an $86,000 budget increase for existing programs the city invests in at Sulzbacher Center on East Adams Street and for the Mental Health Resource Center’s Link and Quest programs.

Council also is seeking a $200,000 budget for the city’s Neighborhoods Department to secure residential properties for the city in declining areas that are “upside down” in value against outstanding city liens.

 Another $69,500 would be used to hire an outside firm to assess the city’s current zoning code “in light of future affordable housing needs and goals, and to make recommendations for changes in the code that will enhance affordable housing efforts and programs.”

Finally, council wants to establish a $357,000 fund to clear titles on city-owned residential properties before they are donated to nonprofits and community housing organizations that seek to renovated old properties in targeted neighborhoods.

The last priority on the list deals with transportation and infrastructure throughout Duval County.

Bowman wants to increase funding for pedestrian safety; provide $2.5 million to repair and replace bulkheads along the St. Johns River and other waterways; and find funding for improved traffic flow Downtown.

The legislation will go through standing committees before the full council votes on the bill around mid-March.

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