Why is Downtown a Blank Slate?

June 14, 2007 37 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

You've always heard in the past that it's hard to set up shop downtown. This is for a variety of reasons, such as parking, the homeless, etc. Today, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at yet another reason it's difficult to set up shop downtown: Government and absentee landlords.

Anyone want to take a guess as to who the dominant landlord is in the city? If you guessed government, you're right! In fact, about half of the developable blocks downtown are owned by a government entity, or Chris Hionides, a well-known downtown landowner who's business model is as follows:

1. Buy a building

2. Do absolutely nothing with it (especially since code enforcement is non-existent downtown)

3. Try to sell it for a ridiculous amount of money.

Take a look at the map below:

All of the properties highlighted in yellow are either owned by a government entity (City, State, Federal, JEA, School Board), or by Hionides. Admittedly, some of these properties have a contributing structure on it (The Jacksonville Landing as an example), but the City's property tax revenue last year on the parcel was a grand total of zero, so it makes the list..

All of the properties are essentially off-limits to private development. Many of these properties are nothing more than dirt, creating what could be an opportunity for a developer to build something, but when we hold the lots and do nothing with them, it makes it hard.

Let's take a deeper look at some of these properties:

Courthouse Site

These six blocks one day might contain a courthouse, we shall see. The city should build a vertical courthouse on one or two of these blocks, then sell the remaining three (the old federal courthouse is supposed to be renovated in to judicial offices).

Old Humana Lot

The city acquired this lot in the Landing-River Watch-City deal that took place in 2006. Now that they own it, what will they do with it? Since the boys in Tallahassee are doing their best to put a stranglehold on city government budgets with their property tax reform, the pocket park park will likely have to wait. Here's a novel concept: Issue an RFP and get rid of it!

Main Street Pocket Park

We just couldn't live without a pocket park right next to a homeless shelter, a block from Hemming, alongside Main St, which resembles Southside Blvd at rush hour, could we? This lot would have been the perfect RFP site, but we chose differently. This land will remain in the city's hands.

City Hall Annex

Withthe city's redevelopment of the old Haverty's Building, the city will take a vacant building and bring life back to it. While this is a good thing, the city will bring life back to it for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (remember, most government employees are allergic to staying at work a little late). We were also so short sighted that we didn't put any ground level retail in this building - not even a few hundred square feet for a news stand or hole in the wall deli.

The properties mentioned above are just a handful of the city owned properties downtown. For the properties that the city is doing nothing productive with - sell them, and then take the money from the sale and invest in a small capital project, such as better lighting on a sidewalk (See Metro Jacksonville's Lighting Laura Sthere: http://www.metrojacksonville.com/content/view/52/49/) or a signage program to better direct people to parking garages from the highways.

The city should not be land banking on such a large scale, and they should not be involved in real estate speculation. Selling city owned property does not mean the city will lose control of what is constructed on it. Downtown projects still must be reviewed and approved before they are constructed, allowing the city to micro-manage to their hearts content.