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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jun. 28, 201805:20 AM EST

Who's buying up Brooklyn? A group of companies, all linked to the same law firm, is spending millions

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Vacant, run-down and aging properties in the neighborhood on the edge of Downtown attracting interest.
by: David Cawton Staff Writer

A group of companies is quietly purchasing property in Brooklyn.

Since 2014, the group has amassed entire blocks along Park Street, between Forest Street and Myrtle Avenue, totaling at least 11.6 acres.

The investment so far tops $4.4 million.

Altogether, 13 companies have invested in Brooklyn.

Each is tied to three other Jacksonville-based groups — Contega Business Services LLC, North Platt LLC and Ascona LLC.

The common denominator is a Jacksonville law firm. All share an address with the Driver, McAfee, Hawthorne & Diebenow PLLC law firm at One Independent Drive, Suite 1200, in the Wells Fargo Center.

Attorney Steve Diebenow said his client was not interested in discussing the purchases. “I am afraid you are going to have to write from the public records,” he said.

While the buyer’s identity is private, what is planned is surfacing.

Aundra WallaceCEO, Downtown Investment Authority

“They’re looking to do mixed-use development similar to what’s started in Brooklyn already,” said Downtown Investment Authority Chief Executive Officer Aundra Wallace.

That means more residential, retail and office space, he said.

“Not like you see already in the area,” he said of potential office tenants. “But more tailored to the smaller to medium-size businesses from that standpoint.”

He declined to say who was behind Contega Business Services, other than they’re being represented by Diebenow's law firm.

Brooklyn historically was a residential neighborhood when it was settled in 1801 as Dell’s Bluff. The area once was home to  Civil War soldiers, specifically African-American or Buffalo Soldiers.

It was annexed by the city of Jacksonville in 1887.

The roughly 0.5-square-mile neighborhood is bound on the east by the St. Johns River, on the west by I-95, and on the north by McCoy’s Creek. Interstate 95 also represents the southern boundary.

In the early 20th century the area started to transform from a mainly residential neighborhood to one with commercial, office and industrial properties.

Today Brooklyn is a mix of office, industrial and residential properties, although commercial and office users have had more success south of Forest Street.

Most of the neighborhood north of Forest Street and west of Park Street either is vacant, run-down or old, with a few exceptions.

That area seems to be the focus for Contega Business Services.

Brooklyn falls under the umbrella of the DIA, which oversees Community Redevelopment Areas that span the Southbank, the Northbank and the urban core.

In addition to City Council, the six-member DIA board has oversight on the sale of city-owned property, and the development and long-term strategy for Downtown.

Approaching to sell

The buyer has been shopping for a while.

In February, longtime Brooklyn retailer Pennock Floral sold the building and property it has occupied since 1946 to Block Eight LLC, one of the 13 companies buying property in the neighborhood.

With development succeeding along Riverside Avenue in Brooklyn, companies have been buying up the land along Park Street.

It wasn’t the first time Pennock was approached to sell.

“They tried to buy the building a few years back, but we weren’t interested,” said General Manager Larry McCall.

When the decision was made to relocate Pennock from 260 Park St. to a location on Dennis Street, McCall said attorneys representing Block Eight were ready to buy.

“It was very fast,” McCall said. “I think the whole thing closed in something like 10 days.” The $565,000 sale was recorded Feb. 22.

But not all owners are dealing.

The owners of Brinton’s Paint Co. at 200 Park St. say they were approached by Tripp Gulliford, senior managing director of the commercial real estate firm CBRE Jacksonville.

“We weren’t interested,” said co-owner Bob Brinton. “I’m always very cautious when people approach dad (Burk) with those kind of things.”

He said currently he has no desire to relocate from the block they’ve occupied since the mid-1970s.

Brinton said he was not against development if it “makes sense for the area.”

Gulliford declined to comment, saying he was not at liberty to discuss the accumulation of property in Brooklyn by his client, which also is represented by Diebenow’s firm.

Some plans already are in the open. Bedopas LLC proposes to redevelop an old church on Dora Street near Chelsea Street on a combined 0.4 acres it purchased for $129,700 in April 2015. It has acquired another quarter-acre in the area since 2016.

The group presented plans to the DIA and Downtown Development Review Board this year to convert the church into a brewery and restaurant.

Alex Sifakis, president of JWB Real Estate Companies

Another buyer

While Contega Business Services continues to focus on Park Street, another group is buying homes closer to Myrtle Avenue.

Several subsidiaries under the JWB Real Estate Companies LLC umbrella paid about $745,000 for 3.4 acres since 2014.

President of JWB Alex Sifakis said Brooklyn has potential.

“It is a great asset for Jacksonville right now, but not everyone has realized it just yet,” he said.

JWB specializes in buying properties in what Sifakis refers to as “B” and “C” neighborhoods and remodeling them as rentals.

“We don’t really have any big development plans. We’re really just trying to help spur eventual development by assembling all these piano keys parcels,” he said, referring to slices of property not generally large enough for individual uses.

Sifakis said his company’s interest is not large-scale, mixed-use development.

He said the neighborhood still has a lot of individual property owners who are starting to realize that the interest from developers could mean a windfall.

“You see people who don’t like change, or some that are totally unreasonable with their asking prices,” Sifakis said. “Then you have those who are willing to sell and are happy to work with us.”

Sifakis said Brooklyn will look much different in the next two decades, assuming the economy remains stable.

“It’s going to be a while before development gets to the section of Brooklyn we are, but hopefully when it does it will be easier for us to develop or for others to do it,” he said.

Sifakis also sees opportunity. “The retail struggled because there wasn’t enough density there, but that’s going to change.”

The future

Council member Reggie Gaffney represents the area in District 7. While he does not have specific details of individual projects, he knows there are plans for mixed-use.

“One of the first projects will be to address the affordable housing there,” he said of the half-acre of property owned by the Jacksonville Housing Authority at the corner of Stonewall and Spruce streets.

Through conversations with Diebenow and other Contega Business Services representatives, Gaffney said he’s been told their plan is “long-term and focused on getting people to live Downtown.”

“I’m happy people are looking at Brooklyn to bring more housing because we need more people living Downtown,” he said.

He said to expect a second and third wave of mixed-use development, starting along Park Street and fanning out from there.

Sifakis said Brooklyn, the urban core and neighboring LaVilla have momentum.

“Anything going Downtown complements everything going on Downtown.”
 

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