Retail Task Force hears 'shopping center' marketing proposal for Downtown

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by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

Efforts to revitalize Jacksonville’s Downtown retail environment might be headed toward treating the urban core like a shopping center.

Ben Carter, developer of St. Johns Town Center and chairman of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission’s Retail Task Force, has offered to have a chart prepared showing every available Downtown retail location. Carter said a group of retail consultants would use the chart when leasing the spaces to tenants. The Downtown overlay would allow prospective retailers to choose locations based on the other stores, restaurants and bars around their businesses, much like in a suburban shopping center.

“It would be a way to get the ball rolling,” said Carter. “Retailers want to know who their neighbors would be.”

In addition to mapping out retail opportunities, Carter also recommended another “shopping center” marketing concept. He said a date for a grand opening event for Downtown retail and leasing space should have a provision: “It will be 80 percent leased or you don’t have to open.”

Also at the Jan. 5 Retail Task Force meeting, member Alex Coley, principal of Hallmark Partners, detailed plans for the development of the Brooklyn neighborhood along Riverside Avenue. He said Hallmark’s plans include 40,000 square feet of retail space adjacent to a 50-foot-wide pedestrian esplanade that would lead to an entertainment plaza similar to Atlanta’s Chastain Park.

The current retention pond will be converted into what Coley called a “contemplation pool.” An amphitheater space that would accommodate 800 people is also planned.

The residential component of the project includes both market-rate and workforce housing.

“Having both workforce and high-end housing brings diversity to the community,” said Coley.

He said the plan will be considered by the Design Review Committee at its next meeting. Coley said the project should break ground later this year and take 18 months to complete.

He also proposed the eventual creation of a retail corridor on Park Street from the Five Points neighborhood to Downtown.

Toney Sleiman presented his project for the Kings Avenue parking garage area. The project includes 30,000 square feet of retail space, and Sleiman said retailers consider the project “another part of San Marco.”

He said it’s difficult to predict construction costs while developing a project.

“Oil goes up and construction costs go up, oil goes down and construction costs go up,” said Sleiman.

Tony Allegretti offered more details on the conversion of the Haydon Burns Library into a mixed-use development. He said he is working with architects and prospective tenants, which include a grocery store, a theater chain, real estate offices and restaurants and bars.

Allegretti said merchants have told him “no national chains are currently looking at Downtown.”

Kuhn Development Company was represented by George Moore, vice president for property management, who said there are 12,000 square feet of retail space in the Barnett project, but Kuhn is not counting on retail tenants for the project to work.

“We’re operating on faith,” said Moore. “We’ve done it in Orlando. We’ve seen it happen. Jacksonville is a better city, and it’s going to turn out much nicer.”

When asked if there would be any workforce housing available at the Barnett project, Moore said, “It’s costing $27.5 million to renovate the building. With 108 units, the math doesn’t work for workforce housing.”

Other issues discussed at the task force meeting included traffic-flow patterns after sports events and how the current scheme impacts retail Downtown.

“After a football game, 70,000 people get in their cars and they make them leave town. That has to change,” said Sleiman.

Carter also suggested the creation of a Downtown merchants association and Sleiman offered the Landing as a site to host the meetings.