DIA to consider new LaVilla town house proposal after Vestcor drops project

The for-sale residential project was meant to complement the city’s plans to build Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park in the historic Downtown neighborhood.

Johnson Commons plans to keep the historically influenced designs it proposed for the town house project in 2019.
Johnson Commons plans to keep the historically influenced designs it proposed for the town house project in 2019.
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The Vestcor Companies Inc. has abandoned plans to build town houses in LaVilla, but the project could gain a familiar new developer.

Documents released March 5 by the Downtown Investment Authority state Vestcor will not proceed with the 88 for-sale town houses it planned for the Downtown community, but a partnership of JWB Real Estate Capital and Corner Lot Development is interested in the site.

The city narrowly selected Vestcor for the project over JWB and Corner Lot in 2019. 

DIA CEO Lori Boyer said March 5 that Vestcor informed her in November the company was no longer interested in the development after several months of delays. The company returned the 3.45-acre parcel adjacent to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park to the city. 

“Vestcor’s been very upfront about it. They do mostly for-rent products and most of it is mixed-income or low-income projects. It’s not their expertise or their niche,” Boyer said. “But they really wanted to do it and are engaged Downtown.”

Ryan Hoover is president of Vestcor subsidiary TVC Development Inc. and worked on the company’s town house pitch. 

He said March 5 that Vestcor’s decision to return the land to the city and end the project was market-driven because of the pandemic and the company did not want to slow the city’s goal to redevelop the property.

“We were ready to go. Then COVID hit and, obviously, our focus changed at that time,” Hoover said. “We weren’t comfortable doing a for-sale product down there. That doesn’t mean it won’t be successful. We think they’ll (Johnson Commons) get it done and be successful. 

“We want it to get done, it’s just not going to be us,” he said.

Johnson Commons

JWB and Corner Lot are proposing Johnson Commons, a minimum of 91 three-story town houses, according to the board committee documents. The units will be about 1,400 square feet with a one-car garage. 

The DIA calculates the development can support homes priced at $243,100 “absent significant market growth.”

Johnson Commons also proposes a minimum 10,000-square-foot retail second phase at Lee and Forsyth streets. DIA documents say the second phase could also include multifamily residential.

The second phase would begin construction within seven years of closing on the property, according to the proposed agreement. 

“In the interim, this portion of the site will be developed as green space accessible to the adjacent Emerald Trail and maintained by the Developer,” the DIA documents state.

The deal would keep a required monetary donation to the historic Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park. Johnson Commons has offered a $150,000 cash contribution and will pay to install eight LaVilla heritage signs. 

The DIA documents say Johnson Commons would take ownership of the site at no cost if the deal is approved. The DIA report says the property was appraised in 2019 at $3.58 million.

DIA staff calculated a $1.06 return to the city for every $1 invested in the project.

If the developer sells the town houses for more than $250,250 each, Johnson Commons will be required to give the city 50% of the net sale proceeds beyond the base sale price.

JWB Real Estate Capital President Alex Sifakis said March 5 the development team plans an $18 million investment for the town houses.

Sifakis said he does not have a cost estimate for the second phase retail, but that the developers would like to start on the retail component sooner than the seven-year window allowed in the proposed agreement.

The Johnson Commons developers also want a restaurant in the second phase, as well as neighborhood services like a hair salon and a dry cleaner. 

Sifakis said no retail tenants have been identified. 

The development team considers retail near the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center critical for LaVilla’s long-term viability, Sifakis said. 

“When you’re talking about transit-oriented development, it’s important to be dense around those transit nodes,” he said.

The DIA board’s Retail Enhancement and Property Disposition Committee is scheduled to vote March 15 on issuing a 30-day notice of disposition for the property bounded by Adams, Johnson, Lee and Forsyth streets.

The full board likely will vote on the notice March 17.

Boyer said that notice is required to solicit any similar development interest in the property before the board can vote on a contract with Johnson Commons.

Design will remain

The DIA board selected Vestcor’s town house proposal in August 2019. The company had the highest overall score of three bids submitted. 

The 5-2 split vote among the DIA board members came from the preferred inclusion of retail and historic LaVilla shotgun-style design cues from the second-ranked proposal by Johnson Commons.

Vestcor did alter its house designs to include gabled roofs but did not commit to retail. City Council approved the deal in January 2020. 

Sifakis said the latest plans for Johnson Commons keep the historically influenced designs.

The Johnson Commons development team also has real estate holdings and interests throughout Downtown. 

Downtown focus

JWB Real Estate purchased three historic buildings in the Downtown North Core in 2020 with plans for a mixed-use resident retail and restaurant block — the Federal Reserve Bank Building on North Hogan Street; 218 W. Church St.; and Seminole Club building at 400 N. Hogan St.

Corner Lot is working with Kelco Management and Development Inc. on a Home2 Suites by Hilton on Park Street in Brooklyn.

Sifakis said he thinks the Northeast Florida housing market is right for a for-sale product in LaVilla.

“The residential market is on fire right now. There is only a month of inventory. We do think there is a market there. You can’t be sure because there’s no (comparison) Downtown, but we’re willing to be a pioneer.”


The DIA board could vote on the Johnson Commons project in April if the city receives no other competitive bids for the property from the disposition.

Boyer said she hopes the project gains Council approval by June 30. 

Johnson Commons intends to simultaneously submit permit applications to the city and design plans to the Downtown Development Review Board for review, she said.

If there are no delays, Sifakis said Johnson Commons could break ground on the town houses by January.