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Jax Daily Record Friday, Oct. 1, 202105:10 AM EST

Transforming Downtown's North Core

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Developers are pursuing more than $233 million in neighborhood projects with the help of city tax dollars.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

For several weeks, workers have been gutting and prepping the historic landmark Florida Baptist Convention Building, built in 1924, for new uses.

The 218 W. Church St. structure, planned for 24 apartments, restaurant and retail space, is one of eight projects proposed in the neighborhood near City Hall.

“We’re cranking on them,” said JWB Real Estate Capital LLC President Alex Sifakis.

“If you go by there they look totally different already. The interior of 218 Church Street has been cleared out. They’re moving.”

Since 2018, JWB, Augustine Development Group LLC, developer/investors Jim and Ellen Wiss and a Corner Lot Development Group LLC-ACE JAX LLC partnership have been pursuing projects in what they call the North Core.

The four groups have a combined $233.75 million in project investments at some stage of development in the area. 

The projects comprise 743 multifamily residential units and more than 85,730 square feet of retail/office space. 

Sifakis said the groups are coordinating to build up the neighborhood. 

“We think it’s really important to cluster development to make it successful, especially in Downtown,” Sifakis said.

They also coined the unofficial North Core name for the nine-block area bordered by Duval, Hogan, Clay and Beaver streets.

Sifakis said when JWB began looking at real estate in the North Core in 2019, the area’s appeal was the density of historic buildings, the location on the future Emerald Trail and the group of developers who wanted to create a neighborhood.  

 “Knowing that there were a number of developers that already owned property or were eyeing property in the area, that was really important,” Sifakis said.

He also noted the proximity to the center of Downtown.

Developers Jim and Ellen Wiss.

Jim and Ellen Wiss sold the Federal Reserve Building to JWB in August 2020. That structure is being renovated into restaurant and event space.

The Wisses now propose a multifamily historic building renovation with a new addition on Hogan and Ashley streets. 

 Jim Wiss said they are “big believers in urban cores.”

“A lot of the peripheral Downtown areas (in Jacksonville) are getting some stronger focus,” he said. 

“Our hope is we’ll bring more focus to the core with our projects and some of the other projects on the drawing board.”

Augustine Development Group CEO George Bochis.

Augustine Development Group CEO George Bochis and President Bryan Greiner are developing two multifamily mixed-use projects in the North Core, including renovating the historic Independent Life Building. Augustine also is restoring the historic Ambassador Hotel. 

Bochis said he has been asked why Augustine Group is focused on Downtown Jacksonville and the North Core.

“To me, it feels like Nashville felt like a decade ago. And now you can’t buy anything in Nashville,” Bochis said. 

“You try to find the next Nashville,” he said. 

Bochis said the Downtown Investment Authority and mayor’s office “are really, really starting to pull Jacksonville along to where it deserves to be.”

Boost from taxpayers

The developers say the city’s willingness to use tax dollars to help the private sector revitalize the North Core is essential to making historic renovations financially viable.

The DIA and City Council have awarded more than $13.1 million in historic preservation grants and forgivable and deferred loans for North Core projects over the past three years. Another $670,000 for JWB’s Porter House Mansion renovation is awaiting a Council vote. 

The city money is from the Historic Preservation Trust Fund and the Downtown Preservation and Revitalization Program.

More tax dollars could flow into the area in the next two years.

Corner Lot Companies CEO Andy Allen.

Corner Lot Companies CEO Andy Allen and ACE JAX manager Elias Hionides have been working since 2018 to adapt the historic Jones Brothers Furniture Co. building. Allen said their latest plan adds new construction to transform the property into 100 apartments. 

He said that density makes the project financially feasible.

DIA CEO Lori Boyer said in August 2020 that the Jones Brothers adaptive reuse was one of several projects that prompted the authority to revamp city historic incentives.

Allen said his group also plans to apply for a Recapture Enhanced Value Grant property tax refund from the city on the Jones Brothers addition.

Other projects in the North Core also could be eligible for tax breaks. 

Allen hopes DIA officials will target any new multifamily construction in the North Core for REV Grant funding. 

“In order to make those densities work you need a new construction segment,” Allen said.

 He expects a continued need for incentives “to make these numbers work.”

Developers say city incentives are needed because restoring historic buildings is expensive and can have lower margins of return in the short term for investors. Many historic renovations Downtown have required structural and code compliance work. 

Christian Harden, managing partner at real estate firm NAI Hallmark.

Christian Harden, managing partner at real estate firm NAI Hallmark, voted on design approvals for several of the North Core projects as a member of the city’s Downtown Development Review Board.

He said the North Core reminds him of the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood 15 years ago at the beginning of a surge in retail and multifamily construction. 

 “I think that there is just an open opportunity in that area of Downtown where you can acquire an entire block without too much trouble,” Harden said. 

“It’s a great combination of empty blocks with historic assets that make it a good area for placemaking.” 

Harden said North Core development will  benefit from market-driven lease prices and migration to Jacksonville and the Southeast U.S. influenced in part by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Population centers and employment are popping up so we don’t see a slowdown in the near future.”

Recruiting restaurants

Sifakis said JWB’s North Core projects are long-term investments and not designed to be quick turnarounds to sell. 

He said Downtown restaurants are not moneymakers but are needed to establish the neighborhood as a pedestrian-friendly area.

Sifakis said if developers can cluster such uses, they can create a neighborhood, and the restaurants “can become moneymakers in five, 10, 15 or 20 years.”

 Bochis says Augustine Group is negotiating and under a nondisclosure agreement with a national chain to fill the 21,000-square-foot “neighborhood market” grocery planned for the ground floor of the Independent Life Building.

Greiner said in July that the Ambassador Hotel will have a “SoHo concept” restaurant operated by Doral-based Victory Hospitality LLC owner Mark Mughabghab.

Allen said developers want local restaurateurs to operate in the North Core, but he and Sifakis plan to start a “recruitment mechanism” to bring restaurants and retail operators from other established downtowns in the Southeast. 

“You’re going to see new business actually taking the risk to start Downtown that have establishments that have been around Savannah and Charleston,” Allen said. 

“The only way that we’re going to (revitalize) Downtown is to get those people to come be a part of the energy.”

 

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