Jim Citrano is managing director of CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate and brokerage firm located in the Wachovia building. He’s originally from New York, but has been in Jacksonville for the last 30 years. A former Marine, Citrano has been active in the local business and development community, including six years as a member of the Downtown Development Authority. As chairman of the DDA, Citrano was also a member of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. Through it all, he has seen the demise and current resurgence of downtown. Daily Record staff writer Mike Sharkey met recently with Citrano for a candid discussion about downtown redevelopment, what’s right, what’s wrong and where it’s going.
Question: What do you do with CB Richard Ellis as managing director and what does CB Richard Ellis do?
Answer: I’m responsible for the North Florida market area. We’re the largest real estate service company in the world, principally brokerage, investment property and sales, but also appraisal, investment banking, asset services — which is property management — portfolio management and international services.
Q: Have you always been involved in commercial real estate or have you also dabbled in residential real estate?
A: Yes. I’ve owned residential real estate and speculated on it, but my business is commercial.
Q: How did you end up in Jacksonville?
A: I was a site selector for a company in Manhattan and had to look at all the cities on the Eastern seaboard from [Washington] D.C. to Miami and liked Jacksonville. The company didn’t come here, but I was offered a job and I ended up coming over to be in the development business.
Q: Are you glad you stuck around?
A: Obviously, I’ve been here 30 years.
Q: Looking around your office, you’ve been involved in a lot of business and development groups and boards. Where does that interest come from?
A: It just kind of grew out of the business. When you’re involved in real estate, the one thing that’s constant is the land. Obviously, the growth of the community added value to the property. In order to spur that growth, I got involved.
Q: Compared to other cities, how is Jacksonville growing?
A: I think it’s growing exponentially faster than a lot of other places and may be better controlled and managed than other places in Florida. But it hasn’t been as dynamic, say, as Orlando because it doesn’t have a Disney. [Mayor] John Delaney said that yesterday [Wednesday]. He said we benefited from being able to pick the kind of city we wanted to do.
Q: Is there anything, looking back, you would have done differently?
A: We did a lot of stupid projects along the way, but you have to expect that. We cracked a couple of empty safes. I can’t see the Skyway Express as being a successful project. But had we done more mass transportation and put it on the ground, like the trolleys, I think we would have done better in that regard. I think we should have controlled downtown parking better. I think the [Prime Osborn] convention center might not be in the most advantageous space in order to spur convention business. But those are things where hindsight clears up the vision pretty quick.
Q: City Council member Elaine Brown has a pretty innovative plan for the convention center. She’d like to return it to the transportation hub that it was and incorporate a hotel and other projects. What are you thoughts on that plan?
A: I think it’s an interesting plan. The reality of mixed-use plans like that is one element may work very well, but I don’t know that you can get all of them to work well. I go back and look at things from my experiences that have been done like that in the South, and it’s very hard to have a financial success and make sure all the parts work in concert. In that plan, I think it would be very ambitious and very expensive and a high-risk development plan as opposed to staying with one of the elements and concentrating on it. The most obvious would be as a transportation hub. But is it the best site for an office building or a hotel? It takes a lot more feasibility study to make that determination. I’m not saying it won’t happen, or it couldn’t. But the risk in doing a multi-faceted process is that if one of the developments, or one of the development segments, doesn’t work, it takes down the rest of it.
Q: What do you see as the future of the Osborn Center?
A: I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, it’s probably going to have to be what it is now. I don’t think it will change. I think the area around it will grow to it and make it successful, eventually, just on a longer time table. Once again, it’s like the Skyway Express. Time will either make those things work or prove they weren’t good ideas. Right now, you can’t measure it. Dulles Airport [outside Washington, D.C.], for example, when it was built was considered a huge boondoggle. Now, it’s the second or third most traveled airport in America. So, eventually, if the city grows that way and we do the Brooklyn plan, if we continue to edge west of the downtown area, that may be the place where you want all that stuff to be. It’s just a little bit futuristic right now.
Q: Brooklyn and LaVilla are two areas of focus for the DDA. Mayor Delaney has said he doesn’t think LaVilla was developed properly. Is that accurate or is it coming along as the DDA thought it would?
A: Actually LaVilla is coming along pretty well. I would differ with him [Delaney] on that. We’re starting to see the development in LaVilla that we always envisioned when it started. There have been a couple of things that were, maybe, inconsistent. But, overall, I’m quite pleased with LaVilla. I heard him [Delaney] say in a breakfast meeting there were probably some mistakes in LaVilla. I think there were probably a couple of false starts. Obviously, we would have liked to see the Winn-Dixie store get built. But, all in all, I think LaVilla has been pretty successful.
Q: You spent several years on the DDA, your term will expire next summer and you’re no longer chairman. When you look at your years on the DDA, what will you be most proud of and were there some things the DDA didn’t get to during your tenure?
A: The biggest thing is Hendricks Avenue; we never did get that going and it’s something I’ll continue to work on. I still think it’s something we ought to push and that would be the modernization, widening, beautification, boulevarding of Hendricks Avenue between Atlantic Boulevard on the south and Prudential Drive on the north. It needs to happen. The other area that I wish we’d done a better job with was implementing the Downtown Parking Task Force study. That, I thought, was significant and I still believe that parking is the single biggest ingredient in growing downtown. The report was excellent and we had a great deal of public input. It was well-drafted, well-written and had a lot of good stuff in it and nothing’s been done about.
Q: Who’s fault is that?
A: I think it’s ours. The biggest thing is, what I wanted to do and what I still think needs to be done, is have the DDA or somebody become the parking authority and take responsibility and be accountable for it. We didn’t do that. As far as the good things, it’s all the things we built. I think we did a lot of good stuff that I certainly don’t take credit for. It was really a combination of everybody involved.
Q: If you were going to give someone a guided tour of downtown DDA projects, what would show them?
A: I think what we’ve done in terms of what the mayor calls ‘The Billion Dollar Mile’ is clearly the high point. I really don’t care about the projects. Those are what the politicians want to see their names on. Alltel Stadium and this and that, that’s wonderful. What I look at is the infrastructure we caused to be built or pushed. As we are an extension of the mayor’s office and no longer an independent authority, I think the real credit has to go this administration and Mayor Delaney since we’re appointed by him and worked on the things he wanted us to do. It’s really a shared credit with what we’ve done, the JEDC has done, the City Council has done and what he’s [Delaney] directed. The Better Jacksonville Plan — huge. I’m proud to be part of it, proud to try to help the mayor sell, glad that we passed it. I think that was wonderful. But probably the biggest thing, and Audrey [Moran, chief of staff] and I were talking about this the other day, is the creation of the existing JEDC. When I first got on the DDA, we were independent, but we had no clout. There was virtually no interest in our projects. We couldn’t get the support we needed. We didn’t have the political muscle we needed to build things. It took reforming the JEDC and having the power in the mayor’s office behind us to get things done. From an ego point of view, I think it was a little bit tough for some of us on the DDA board at that time to give up our independent status. But in reality, we became much more effective by doing it. I remember when we were the old DDA, somebody would open up a restaurant and we’d take credit for that. Or, we’d do something on Main Street with the signage and we’d all think that was a big deal. It really wasn’t the business we should have been in. What we should have been in, and what we became and where we wanted to go and what I liked to do, is create infrastructure so private developers can come in and make successful projects out of the things we created for them. For example, creating the opportunity for somebody to build a building in LaVilla. Not necessarily building the building or funding it, but creating the opportunity for the private sector to come in and fill in the areas that become valuable, or increase in value, because we have that Billion Dollar Mile going. Where the success will come is if 11 E. Forsyth is successful, if Berkman is successful, if the Shipyards is successful, somebody else is going to come in without incentives and build on that. We’re going to have a residential area that will be second to none in the South. Then, the retail will follow. All that is years down the road, so you won’t be able to measure it for a while.
Q: Does that mean the days of economic incentives are coming to an end?
A: I think so. I think there will be incentives in different forms like infrastructure improvements, not necessarily cash. Incentives have to have a public purpose. It has to benefit the whole community. It can’t just be something for the developer to induce him to mitigate his risk.
Q: How then do you argue the incentives for 11 E. Forsyth or Berkman Plaza benefit the community?
A: It establishes the first ones to go in and do residential housing, which wouldn’t have happened. We are, in essence, a high-risk lender. No one was going to fund those things. If the feasibility of those things proves out, then private lenders will step up and fund those projects. If you go back past Berkman, past the Shipyards, past some of the other projects — go back to the Villas of St. John in Riverside then look at the similar project with the Publix shopping center that opened across the street, you start to see a real sense of community coming back. Now, that area in Riverside has residential homes going for upwards of $150 a [square] foot. That’s where I consider value being created.
Q: 11 E. Forsyth will be done soon and Berkman is starting to fill up. Between the Shipyards, the Roosevelt Hotel and the Strand on the Southbank, is downtown on the verge of establishing too much residential for its own good?
A: It’s hard to tell because we don’t have any feasibility. What’s going to show is when they fill up. If the fill up, people will build more. If they don’t fill up, somebody is going to lose a project, and you’ll get your answer. But you’re plowing new ground here. It’s not like saying I’m in Mandarin and I’m going to build a tract with 50 new homes off State Road 13. You’re pretty well assured that at a certain price point those lots are going to sell because you have years of history. We are, literally, on the cusp of something very new. The proof will be in the market. You can do all the feasibility studies in the world; market is going to tell you what it wants.
Q: If you could change some things about downtown, what would you change?
A: The same problem that we have and the same problem that all downtowns have — vagrancy, homeless, indigent. People tend to congregate in the downtown area and give the perception that it’s unsafe when it really isn’t. We do a better job on it than we ever did, but panhandlers will still aggravate people. But they are everywhere, they happen to be more visible downtown. The biggest problem we have is lack of retail and lack of residential and that’s what we are working on changing.
Q: A few years ago, the DDA spent a lot of time, money and effort on the Downtown Master Plan. Where does the Master Plan stand these days and is it being implemented?
A: It’s become the backbone and skeleton of everything we do. It’s really interesting to see that people do refer to it and that it’s off the shelf and becoming a living document. It’s specific enough to have teeth and it’s general enough to allow flexibility. I think the downtown overlay zone, which is a result of some of the recommendations of the Downtown Master Plan, will give the force of law behind a whole lot of things the Master Plan calls for.
Q: There are three City buildings within the Billion Dollar Mile — the county courthouse, the annex and the jail. That stretch will become very valuable one day. It’s a given the courthouse and annex will move. What do you think will happen with the jail and the other two tracts?
A: I don’t think the jail is moving any place. I think the annex and the courthouse will move. I think we build around the jail. The only problem with the jail is — it’s not an unattractive building — it’s just that we know it’s a jail. It’s certainly not a threat unless somebody escapes from it. Otherwise, it’s a non-event. You also have the police station there, too, so you have the Alpha and the Omega — security on one side and potential harm on the other. But, it’s not going to move and I think the other side of Bay Street is probably going to grow accordingly into what becomes the catalyst on the river. With the courthouse there, you have a plethora of legal offices, bail bonds, etc. The courthouse leaves, those people are going to move with it and you’re going to have something that comes in — an entertainment district with the Florida Theater as the hub, we can start having the coffee houses and the arts and a cultural center, the other side of Bay Street will grow accordingly.
Q: How do you see the mayor’s race shaping up?
A: I don’t think we’ve got everybody in yet. I don’t think all the candidates are all in place. I just hope that whoever does win is as pro downtown as this mayor was. This mayor — strong, popular and an advocate for downtown — has made more of an affect on the growth and development of the downtown community than probably any other mayor I can think of, although each has built on the other’s record. In other words, Jake [Godbold] really started the emphasis on it. But prior to him, Hans Tanzler didn’t have the problems Jake had; Jake picked up the ball and ran with it. Clearly, Ed Austin did a wonderful job when he did the renovation of Alltel Stadium and John carried on from there. It takes that kind of push to make things happen in a downtown area. There was an article today that talked about when people used to come downtown when the old May Cohens and others were here. You can sit around and write all those feel-good stories. The fact of the matter is, retail left for the suburbs in the 1960s and the 1970s and it hasn’t come back yet, and it’s not going to ever come back the way it used to be. But you can still have a thriving downtown with other things. It’s not going to be the good old days. It’s going to be good new days.
Q: Your last term with the DDA ends next summer. Will you stay involved with other boards?
A: I really don’t think so. I think it’s time for some fresh ideas. People have heard me long enough. They know where I stand, they know my ideas. Obviously, if I can help somebody with the new regime, I’d be happy to. But as far as being appointed to it, I really think there are other people who deserve a chance and I’m taking up a spot somebody else can fill and do a better job. You can’t be on top of your game forever. Like everything else, I think I’ve done the hard work that I needed to do. I’d like to see somebody like Oliver Barakat or Gary Macy or somebody else start doing the same kinds of things. Mike Harrell, now head of Downtown Vision; Lou Nutter has always been involved in different planning phases. All the guys that work here are 10, 15, 20 years younger and they are the ones building for their future, and that’s the motivation.
Q: What would you like people to remember about you and what you did for the DDA over the years?
A: I don’t know that I did anything memorable. I think I told the truth. I might have ruffled a few feathers along the way, but I think the truth needed to be told. I’m not sure the folks over at the JTA were particularly thrilled about some of my comments about the Skyway Express. But they were my comments and if you ask my opinion, I’m going to give it to you. I think the joke around City Hall is, I’ve spent enough time doing this public service thing, I’ve vested. Unfortunately, since I’ve never been paid, there’s nothing to vest. It was kind of a compliment, but at the same time a reminder that it’s time to move on and get out. But that’s probably a good thing.