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Jax Daily Record Friday, Nov. 20, 202010:40 AM EST

The Downtown Investment Authority expected to do Lot J review

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At a three-hour City Council meeting, a Curry administration official, member Aaron Bowman and President Tommy Hazouri spar over the process.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

The city’s $233 million incentive package for Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s Jot J development appears headed to the Downtown Investment Authority for review. 

The City Council on Nov. 19 was debating Ordinance 2020-648 that authorizes borrowing for the $450 mixed-use development and includes ordinance code waivers to bypass review of the project by the DIA and Downtown Development Review Board.

Near the end of a three-hour meeting that often veered from the agenda, President Tommy Hazouri proposed voting on a resolution Nov. 24 that would defer the Lot J bill and development agreement for DIA analysis. 

The decision came after Council failed to reach a quorum to vote on an amendment by District 5 member LeAnna Cumber to defer the legislation until the DIA’s review.

Council member Matt Carlucci attends the Nov. 19 meeting that was held both virtually and in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cumber proposed the amendment as an alternative to Council member Matt Carlucci’s proposed substitute bill. His legislation would send Lot J to the DIA by striking the ordinance code waivers that limited DIA’s involvement.

Carlucci and Cumber want the independent agency to review the city’s investment in the mixed-use project proposed west of TIAA Bank Field.

Organizations like the Jacksonville Civic Council, Urban Land Institute North Florida and OurJax and the public call for more transparency in the agreement. 

The deal, negotiated over the past two years by the Mayor Lenny Curry administration, calls for $208 million in taxpayer debt to fund Lot J.

 The project, a partnership of the city, Khan development company Gecko Investments LLC and The Cordish Companies, includes a city-owned 100,000-square-foot Live! District entertainment venue; 75,000 square feet or retail; 40,000 square feet of Class A office space; and a 150- to 250-room hotel.

Hazouri said the proposed resolution would mirror language in Cumber’s amendment that she drafted with help from DIA CEO Lori Boyer.

Boyer said during the meeting that Carlucci’s substitute bill would have taken the Lot J deal back to the negotiation stage. 

The DIA would have been required to appraise and issue a 30-day notice of disposition on the property before the DIA board or Council could vote on a new development agreement.

“Some of those waivers allow us to pick up where we are right now as opposed to going back at least several months,” Boyer said. “The difference between the two is how far back you want us to go. Do you want us to start back at square one in negotiation and conversation about this transaction more globally or start where you are right now?”

Jaguars President Mark Lamping speaks at the Nov. 19 meeting.

Jaguars President Mark Lamping said at the meeting the Jaguars and Cordish were directed to negotiate with the Curry administration and not the DIA, similar to talks in 2015 for a public-private partnership for the Daily’s Place Amphitheater and Flex Field.

“We have no interest in going back to square one,” Lamping said.

Lamping said concessions, such as revenue sharing in the parking agreement and a prohibition on selling Lot J’s hotel component for at least five years, will be included in the final agreement.

Boyer said the DIA intends to recommend to Council whether to accept the agreement as is, reject it or accept with modifications.

City Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes, who led the Lot J negotiations for the city, argued that DIA property dispositions are not typical for current city leaseholders like the Jaguars. 

He noted that the DIA board still was involved in the Lot J process. The agency voted Nov. 18 to recommend approval of the $12.5 million residential Recapture Enhanced Value Grant in the deal.

An early analysis by Council Auditor Kim Taylor projected that the city would receive a return of 44 cents for every $1 invested in the project. The mayor’s office, through the Office of Economic Development, calculated a return of $1.69 for every $1 invested.

Hazouri said using the DIA would avoid a Council debate on paying an independent consultant to review the agreement.

“You violated the spirit of what the DIA is supposed to be doing and it would save a lot of time trying to search for a third-party (consultant) and save a lot of time trying to deal with a lot of amendments if the DIA would have gone in, thoroughly addressed these issues, and come back with a report,” Hazouri said. 

During the debate, Council member Danny Becton said a Curry administration official told him they’ve already approached the DIA to weigh in.

Discourse and disagreements

Hazouri, a Democrat, faced criticism from Republican Council members Aaron Bowman and Rory Diamond for the way he conducted the meeting.

Bowman argued that it was out of order for the Council president to allow Carlucci to explain his substitute bill while there was an active motion to debate Cumber’s amendment. 

At one point, Bowman told Hazouri “you were unprepared for this job.”

Diamond took to Twitter after the meeting and referenced the exchange.

“Tommy Hazouri has no business leading this Council. It’s embarrassing,” Diamond wrote.

Council member Aaron Bowman accused Council President Tommy Hazouri of being unprepared for the job.

Hazouri has a 45-year career in local and state politics. He was Jacksonville mayor from 1987-91 and is serving his second term as an at-large Council member.

The Nov. 19 Committee of the Whole was meant to provide members time to hear the Council auditor’s latest assessment of the development deal, as well as allow a question-and-answer session with Jaguars staff and Curry administration officials.

About 20 minutes into the meeting, Taylor said the developers and Curry administration met with her once on Nov. 18 since the last Committee of the Whole meeting Nov. 5. 

The Jaguars answered her list of questions ranging from financial details in the parking agreement and city incentive clawback provisions in a document dated Nov. 17.

Taylor said she had not received the final agreement language that would enact those changes from the developer.

Hazouri criticized Curry administration negotiators for not having a complete agreement with the Jaguars and Cordish this late in the process.

“I’d hoped that Ms. Taylor would have had some responses. I blame it on the administration,” Hazouri said. “Our Council auditor submitted questions (and) they got back lackluster types of answers. Nothing occurred. Nobody met with our Council auditor that whole time.” 

Hughes approached the podium in Council chambers and asked to be recognized to respond.

“You just disparaged my team, my staff and my mayor, so I’d just take a minute to tell you your characterizations were wrong. They’re wrong, sir, “ Hughes said. “You said things that are not correct, sir.” 

A map of the Lot J development.

Where things stand 

Boyer said Nov. 19 that DIA staff has begun analyzing the agreement and legislation in anticipation that the Cumber amendment or the Carlucci bill would pass. 

Gecko Investments attorney Paul Harden promised the Council that the Jaguars and Cordish would provide the auditors and DIA with language changes as they happen to expedite the analysis. 

Hazouri said he still intends to hold the next Committee of the Whole to finalize the Lot J bill scheduled for Dec. 5. 

It’s unclear if the bill will be ready for a final vote by the Council’s regular Dec. 8 meeting.

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