Multifamily developer The Vestcor Companies is asking city officials to approve the conceptual design for its proposed renovation and addition to the historic YWCA Building in Downtown’s Cathedral District.
The Downtown Development Review Board is scheduled to take its first vote Nov. 10 on the design for the estimated $28.78 million, 120-unit mixed-income apartment project at 325 and 327 E. Duval St.
In a report released Nov. 3, DDRB staff recommends the board grant conceptual approval for Vestcor’s Lofts at Cathedral design.
However, the city wants the developer to prove it needs its requested code deviation that would allow Vestcor to build the first level of residential units in the five-story structure more than the allowed 6 feet above the sidewalk.
According to the report, the design choice allows the building’s ground floor to be covered parking, but DDRB staff said that does not meet the intent of the Downtown overlay code.
The report says the parking garage screening on the corner of Duval and Liberty streets “is lacking visual interest and does not involve the pedestrian on the street.”
“Further enhancement needs to be done on this to ensure the project meets the intent of the code and provides visual interest and engagement of the pedestrian,” the report says.
Renderings in the report show a similar multifamily design to Vestcor’s other Lofts-branded projects in LaVilla and Brooklyn.
The report also critiqued the facade design of the new construction as “relatively flat” and should add more features like balconies, bays, alcoves, awnings and light fixtures to meet the design standards outlined in the Cathedral District Design Guidelines.
“The elevations do show that brick has been added to the façade to help mimic the historic YWCA Building, but the coloring of the building does not utilize the grey tones of the Cathedral District,” the report says.
The renderings show the project architect is Group 4 Design Inc., which has worked with Vestcor on all its Lofts-branded apartments.
If the board votes Nov. 10 to advance the designs, Vestcor will have to return to the DDRB with a refined plan for final approval.
Finding the money
Vestcor has been trying for nearly two years to secure state low-income housing tax credits to help finance the project.
The developer plans to convert the three-story YWCA, also called the former Community Connections building, into 29 residential units. It would connect via a walkway with the new construction of 91 units.
The two parcels sit on 1.52 acres bounded by Church, Liberty and Duval streets and Shields Place.
The Downtown Investment Authority voted unanimously in July to approve a $625,000 development loan for the project.
It is the second time since August 2020 the board has advanced the incentive for Lofts at Cathedral.
The incentive is contingent upon Vestcor winning a 9% Low Income Housing Tax Credit award from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation.
The Jacksonville Housing Finance Authority selects local projects for the tax credit but chose a competing project in the 2020 selection process, meaning Vestcor needed to start the process again.
Vestcor told DIA officials it again will apply for the low-income tax credits expected to pay for $17.7 million of the housing project, according to an August staff report to the DIA board.
Vestcor’s core business in the Downtown Jacksonville market in the past five years is low- to moderate-income housing that includes the Lofts at Brooklyn, Lofts at Jefferson Station and Lofts at LaVilla multifamily developments.
Vestcor paid $1.4 million for the Community Connections building and adjacent property in September 2019 and February 2020 from Billy Goat Hill Inc., a subsidiary of the nonprofit Cathedral District-Jax Inc.
The developer bought the property through VC Cathedral LLC, according to Duval County Clerk of Courts records.