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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jun. 7, 201805:10 AM EST

The Cawton Report: First Landing lawsuit lingers amid new conflict

Legal battle over parking between city and shopping center owner continues in court.
by: David Cawton Associate Editor

As the fight continues over who will operate the Jacksonville Landing, a separate lawsuit concerning the Downtown riverfront retail center continues in the 4th Judicial Circuit Court. 

In October 2015, the city of Jacksonville sued Jacksonville Landing Investments Inc., accusing the company of not closing on a sale for an adjacent property currently being used as surface parking for Landing customers.

JLI is a subsidiary of Sleiman Enterprises, led by President Toney Sleiman. 

The city contends JLI has not paid property taxes but has collected parking fees at the lot since 2007. 

Sleiman bought the three buildings that comprise the Landing in 2003 from Rouse-Jacksonville Inc. for about $5.3 million. 

The city owns the land and Sleiman owns the buildings, leasing the site from the city on a 56-year lease that ends in 2041.

Sleiman agreed to purchase separately the roughly 1.6-acre site referred to in legal documents as the “east parcel” for $4.3 million in 2007 with plans to develop a mixed-use extension to the Landing.

Although Sleiman gave the city the $4.3 million as required in the agreement, by 2014 his company still had not closed on the property, according to the lawsuit.

Property records show the city still owns that parcel.

The city wants Sleiman to close on the sale, and Sleiman wants his $4.3 million back, arguing that city officials never fulfilled the parking requirements it agreed to in the original lease agreement. 

Neither side will comment on the lawsuit.

Both have met to try and resolve the parking issue, and a compromise seemed to be imminent with a new deal agreement in 2007. 

Sleiman’s purchase of the east parcel lot was based on the success of another development agreement executed between the city and Project RiverWatch LLC, a company owned by developer Cameron Kuhn to construct a parking garage.

Kuhn’s company was to build a garage to address parking concerns, allowing Sleiman to purchase the east parcel and then proceed with a mixed-use extension on site. 

Kuhn left Jacksonville and the garage was developed by Parador Partners.

A 600-space, six-story parking garage at 37 S. Hogan St. opened July 1, 2015, to serve the adjacent SunTrust Tower, Downtown visitors and Landing patrons.

As part of the agreement, the project received $3.5 million in incentives from the city in exchange for the public’s use of 200 spaces on weekdays and 375 spaces on weekends.

Sleiman asserts that the garage does not provide enough parking for the Landing, and he has refused to take the deed for the east parcel, leading to the 2015 suit. 

Through much of 2016 and 2017, each side continued filing motions in the court of Judge Robert Dees.

According to court records, depositions with individuals and companies continue to be scheduled, including the most recent May 29 with a “corporate representative of the city of Jacksonville.”

By the end of June 2016, JLI called for a five-day trial by jury, which Dees scheduled for Feb. 12, 2017. 

Both parties decided to scrap the jury trial through a joint motion in December 2017, stating they needed more time to gather evidence and indicated that they seemed to have found a compromise. 

The Dec. 12 motion stated that “the parties have conferred and believe it is in the best interest of judicial efficiency and economy of the parties to bifurcate the trial of the issues in this case through a non-jury trial.”  

A pretrial hearing scheduled for June 6 was moved to June 19 ahead of a June 27 trial. According to court documents, that trial date still stands. 

Complicating the case is another legal battle between the two that began at the end of 2017.  

Each accuses the other of breaching terms of the lease agreement concerning the upkeep and maintenance of the Landing and the surrounding area. 

In October, the Office of General Counsel issued a default letter to JLI, explaining that the company was not maintaining the Landing as a “first-class” retail facility and therefore was in danger of violating the terms outlined in the lease. 

In turn, JLI sued the city in November accusing it of failing to do the same with the surrounding property. 

JLI filed another motion in December accusing the city of purposefully not repairing the damaged docks and bulkheads along the St. Johns River. 

In May, the city moved to terminate the lease agreement. 

The city’s move Friday to evict JLI appears to be at odds with the 2015 lawsuit. 

The city wants Sleiman to take control of the parking lot but also wants to evict Sleiman’s company from the Landing property.

While the cases address separate issues, neither has a time frame for a resolution or a clear sense of who will operate the Jacksonville Landing in the future. 

(904) 356-2466

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