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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 12, 201905:20 AM EST

The First Baptist Church property: ‘No limit what you could do here'

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Developers say the church's decision to sell nine city blocks Downtown presents a rare opportunity.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

First Baptist Church’s announcement Sunday that it will downsize its 13.7-acre Downtown campus put developers on notice that nearly 1.3 million square feet of buildings would soon be on the market in the city’s urban core. 

First Baptist has proposed selling nine city blocks — six contiguous — in response to declining church attendance and a growing multimillion-dollar maintenance bill on its aging 1.5 million-square-foot property. 

Zoned as Central Business District, or CBD, Jacksonville real estate brokers, developers and city officials say the sale is a rare opportunity.

Christian Oldenburg

“There’s virtually no limit on what you could do here,” said Christian Oldenburg, managing director of the Colliers International Northeast Florida commercial real estate services company.

“The developer’s risk appetite and creativity will determine what the land’s worth,” he said.

First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Heath Lambert said Sunday the church will sell 12.17 acres of its 13.7-acre holdings Downtown. The site is bordered by Union, Pearl, Church and Main streets.

According to the Duval County Appraiser, the property for sale is on 15 parcels.

Another building owned by First Baptist at 525 N. Laura St. on 0.15 acres of leased land also is part of the sale, Lambert said. 

First Baptist Church will keep a 182,000-square-foot building on 1.53 acres called “The Hobson Block” to be the center of the church’s Downtown ministry. 

Worship services will move to a renovated Hobson Auditorium, bounded by Church, Hogan, Laura and Ashley streets and built in 1904.

The First Baptist congregation gave church leadership its approval Sunday to obtain a $30 million loan to finance the plan, which includes creating a new education and youth center, a “kids zone” and a welcome area.

Oldenburg said Tuesday it’s an opportunity for something “civic-minded” to be developed Downtown. For example, the six continuous blocks could accommodate a large medical facility.

He said Colliers is working with two undisclosed hospital groups looking for expansion space although he would not say if there is interest in the First Baptist property. 

Oldenburg said a large multifamily development on the site also would work because Downtown boosters like JAX Chamber and Downtown Vision Inc. are pushing to reach a goal of 10,000 residents in the urban core.

That echoes comments Sunday by Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer who sees the six connected blocks as a spot for a medical innovation campus or expansion for a higher education institution, like the neighboring Florida State College at Jacksonville.

City Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes would not directly address if the city would consider a proposal to buy any or all of the property. He said in an emailed statement Monday that the market and development professionals will decide the best use for the available 12.17 acres.

“The property owned by the church Downtown represents a considerable amount of our urban core,” Hughes wrote. 

“In the same area as the church, the Ambassador Hotel (and the former) Jones (Bros.) Furniture building, we’ve already worked to lay the groundwork for development. Working with DIA, we hope these properties see their highest and best use,” he wrote.

Oldenburg said the difference between development on the First Baptist campus and other proposed large-scale projects in Downtown, like Jacksonville Jaguars Owner Shad Khan’s $2.5 billion Shipyards plan, is the land is not city-owned. 

“The distinction I’m drawing is the level of control the city has over what happens here. It is a private transaction,” Oldenburg said. “They have control in the sense that they can decide what the entitlements are and what can or can’t go there in terms of uses, but they’re less in control of the transaction process.”

The First Baptist Church campus is adjacent to City Hall. Lambert said Sunday he has been keeping Mayor Lenny Curry’s office informed.

Developer’s perspective

Elias Hionides is vice president of Petra, a family-owned real estate brokerage that specializes in redevelopment of property in Downtown and Springfield.

He sees a mix of high-density residential development and commercial office space as the best use for the site.

“It would have the greatest net impact for Downtown and the surrounding communities,” he said.

The church campus is the southern gateway to the Springfield neighborhood and is next to Hionides’ redevelopment of the former Jones Bros. Furniture building at 502 N. Hogan St.

Hionides suggests the sale could be an opportunity for Duval County Public Schools to relocate its 1701 Prudential Drive headquarters into the city’s civic core from the Southbank riverfront, which would open that site for redevelopment.

“It’s a very good and obvious choice,” he said. 

Hionides said the First Baptist children’s building matches the school district’s needs.

Infrastructure improvement costs to develop the First Baptist property will be lower than sites like the Shipyards and would take fewer taxpayer incentives than a project like Khan’s $450 million Lot J mixed-use development near TIAA Bank Field.

“The church site is already part of the existing grid system,” Hionides said. “It already has structured parking, which many times is the most expensive part for a developer.”

What’s the price?

First Baptist officials haven’t announced the properties’ asking price. Oldenburg said there are many variables, including the cost to demolish or repair existing structures, that will determine that number.

A starting point could be $40 per square foot for the land, which would price the land at $21.2 million. 

There is a precedent for selling a full city block in Jacksonville. 

Oldenburg said the closest comparison is the former Florida Baptist Convention complex. That facility occupied a block on Hendricks Avenue in San Marco and sold for $6.15 million to Chadbourne II LLC in June 2017.  It will be redeveloped into 345 apartments, parking and 5,500 square feet of retail space.

Extending that sale price by nine blocks would put an estimated listing price for First Baptist’s Downtown campus at $55.35 million.

First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Heath Lambert

Duval County Appraiser Jerry Holland, a 40-plus-year member of First Baptist, said it’s difficult to determine the market value until an analysis is done on the usability of existing structures. 

Lambert said the total deferred maintenance cost is $37 million. Holland said the asking price will depend on which structures can be reused and what needs to be demolished.

Oldenburg agrees.

“For example — parking garages. Those are an important piece of the equation. Any future developer would like to maintain them, especially someone coming in to get density. That’s valuable space,” he said.  

Lambert expects to have a real estate broker within two weeks for the property, which has been generating market attention.

“We’re already receiving offers on the property without a formal relationship with a broker,” he said. 

The 15 parcels could be sold in pieces or as one large property. Oldenburg said finding a master developer for the 12.17-acre site would generate the best project for Downtown.


Satellite churches

Lambert said Sunday the property sale and Hobson Block renovation are part a new direction for First Baptist’s ministry. 

The growth at its satellite campus, which opened this year in Nocatee at the St. Johns County line, influenced the church’s decision to set up more satellite locations away from Downtown and in the suburbs, where people live.

The first priority for the property sale is to pay off the church’s $30 million loan to redevelop the Hobson Block, but additional money could be used for adding locations.

“Phase I is to consolidate our Downtown campus,” he said. “We don’t anticipate opening any new campuses until the end of 2021 at the earliest.” 

First Baptist Church has roughly 28,000 members, but actual attendance is declining. At its peak in 1995, Sunday worship services drew 12,000 to 15,000 people, according to Lambert. In 2019, average attendance has fallen to about 3,200. In Nocatee, Lambert said attendance has risen by 50% since the church opening. 

As a member, Holland is satisfied with the church leadership’s direction to downsize. 

“I really respect the pastor’s vision in addressing the problem. It’s obviously been in decline for 20 years. All that being said, he’s bold enough and done the homework,” Holland said. “I’ve been there since the late 1970s. It’s always disappointing to see the fellowship dwindle down.”

Staff Writer Scott Sailer contributed to this report

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