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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jul. 5, 201905:20 AM EST

The Mendenhall Report: Housing projects build momentum in Downtown Cathedral District

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Vestcor Companies will seek city incentives after governor vetoes $8 million for the Lofts at Cathedral housing development.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

After losing $8 million in state funding, Vestcor Companies President Ryan Hoover says the company is pursuing other city and state incentives to ensure its Lofts at Cathedral affordable housing development stays afloat.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed legislation June 21 that allocated the money. Allowing it to proceed, according to an annual report from the nonprofit research institute Florida TaxWatch, would have bypassed the Florida Housing Finance Corp.’s process for awarding affordable housing projects. 

Hoover is looking to the city for assistance. He said June 27 that Vestcor will approach the city to pursue Recapture Enhanced Value grants and he hopes to secure state low-income housing tax credits to help finance the 140-unit project in the Downtown Cathedral District.

DeSantis said in a statement that allowing a Florida House member — in this case State Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville — to earmark a project that allocates from the trust fund sets a bad precedent. Florida TaxWatch labeled the earmark a fiscal 2019-20 “budget turkey.”

Jacksonville-based Vestcor has been developing affordable and workforce housing “Lofts”-brand apartments in Downtown Jacksonville since 2015.

An artist’s rendering of the shipping container project planned at 412 E. Ashley St. in the Cathedral District.

Hoover said the company is on track to buy the property in the fall. 

Vestcor plans to buy the 1.52-acre site of the former Community Connections at 325 E. Duval St. from the nonprofit Cathedral District-Jax Inc. to build the apartments.

The nonprofit’s president and CEO, Ginny Myrick, argued in a June 22 news statement that the $8 million earmark was unfairly characterized.

“It would have assisted the continued good work of building affordable housing Downtown,” she said. “The direct city allocation was for all of downtown and would have been bid competitively. Cathedral District-Jax is confident the sale of our Community Connections property will proceed as planned.”

As Vestcor continues to seek financing, two more projects with a combined 71 rental housing units by other Jacksonville developers have been announced since May.

Developer Alex Sifakis and his company, JWB Real Estate Capital LLC, has been competing for projects in the Downtown housing market, proposing a mixed-use, 98-townhome and retail development in LaVilla competing with Vestcor’s proposal for 71 townhomes on the same property.

In the Cathedral District, Sifakis received development rights for 412 E. Ashley St. from the Downtown Investment Authority in June to create an 18-unit apartment project with shipping containers.

Retrofitting shipping containers for housing is a first for Jacksonville. The process of building the units off-site then transporting them to the property for stacking, Sifakis said, is a first in the United States.

The shipping containers are scheduled for final design approval when the Downtown Development Review Board meets in August. 

A third housing development proposed in the Cathedral District, and which recently received conceptual approval from DDRB, is a $5.6 million multifamily housing project proposed by developer Rafael Caldera with Arkest LLC.

The 45-unit apartment complex would offer ground-floor art studios and a four-story art gallery.

For Caldera, the Cathedral District is an area with no definitive design pattern, allowing developers architectural creativity.

“Since the location doesn’t have the pedestrian traffic needed, we are trying to create a destination using the education and art exposition factor,” Caldera said. “The lack of context (in the Cathedral District) helps us to create a unique architecture. This will be the first of the three buildings that we have in our vision for Downtown.”

Asbestos survey for Jacksonville Landing

City officials are sticking with a plan to require the winning contractor for The Jacksonville Landing demolition to conduct the asbestos inspection of the shuttered Downtown shopping mall, going against federal EPA regulations that call for the owner — the city — to do so.

Before retiring in June, former city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa affirmed the city’s position in an emailed statement. 

“The time frame is dependent on whether or not asbestos exists and the quantity to be removed,” he wrote. “Whoever wins the bid for The Landing demolition will be responsible for testing and removing asbestos via an independent certified asbestos abatement contractor.”

Plant City-based contractor D.H. Griffin Wrecking Co. Inc. has since been awarded a $1.074 million contract to tear down the riverfront shopping mall.

Landing demolition project engineer Nikita Reed announced in a prebid meeting May 23 that the city was asking the bid winner to perform the asbestos inspection, to the surprise of many of the contractors in the room.

Dee Ann Miller, the press officer for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an email May 23 that the city’s order is contrary to federal rules.

“EPA’s National Emission Standards for Asbestos, 40 CFR 61.145(b), is a federal rule that requires the owner or operator of a demolition or renovation activity to thoroughly inspect the facility for the presence of asbestos,” she wrote.

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