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bobliocatt

Jacksonville: Landing plans take a dive

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March 30, 2004

Landing plans take a dive

Talks over improving The Jacksonville Landing have fractured, leading the developer to rule out completion before the Super Bowl in February and an accusation Mayor John Peyton's office threw a "sucker punch."

Developer Toney Sleiman criticized the city's response to his project as "a surprise and a huge disappointment" in a letter Monday to city economic development chief Kirk Wendland and the City Council.

At a meeting last Monday, city officials declined Sleiman's request for a crucial $21 million loan to help pay for the first $54 million in changes. More surprisingly to him, Peyton staff also said the city will consider a riverfront parking garage on the east side of the downtown shopping center. Sleiman said that news reversed an informal agreement to build on the west side off Hogan Street -- and not where he wants to build later.

"It was like a sucker punch," Sleiman adviser Mike Tolbert said in an interview Monday. In the letter, Sleiman said the mayor misled him and others to believe the loan was the only sticking point.

"Simply in my estimation, the Sleimans [Toney and his brothers] are asking for too much, and I have rejected their request," Peyton said Monday. "The city has offered a deal on the Landing that I think is fair and in the best interest of the taxpayers."

The city offer includes giving Sleiman $3.5 million to pay for a corridor into Laura Street, and $2 million to add to Sleiman's $2.6 million to recruit new venues. Sleiman wants those -- and more.

Pressed twice, Peyton refused to say whether he misled Sleiman, only that talks were ongoing. However, top aide Susan Wiles described the accusation as "ridiculous and offensive."

Sleiman wanted to finish the first changes by the Super Bowl at the downtown landmark, where thousands will visit. The first phase included a 960-space garage on the property's west side, refashioning the exterior in Mediterranean stucco, and carving open the entrance at Laura Street for an airy river view. He needed to break ground in March.

"It's not going to happen in time for the Super Bowl," Tolbert said.

"It couldn't," said Barney Smith, Sleiman's chief financial officer and lead negotiator with the city.

Wiles, however, noted the Super Bowl plans have not included a beefed up Landing.

"We're going to make a decision that is in the best interests of the taxpayer, not one long weekend party," Peyton said.

Without the full funding, Sleiman said his fallback plans include painting and bringing in second-tier retailers to fill vacancies. That would rule out opening the Laura entrance, too.

"If they want me to do it, I'll do it," he said. "It's just like something you'd find in an area with 50,000 people -- small-town mentality."

Sleiman and the Mayor's Office began haggling over the Landing in July, when Sleiman and Peyton first discussed the purchase and concepts for improving the property. Sleiman's company paid $5.1 million in August to buy the shopping center. The city transferred the lease for the land, which City Hall owns.

For months, the two sides have disagreed over the interest on a $21 million loan. The city doesn't want to take an estimated $8 million hit to give Sleiman a lower rate. "The city's preference is to not loan money like a bank," Wiles said.

Peyton also said he wants the city to pursue projects that raise per capita incomes, and "typically retail does not meet that criteria."

Sleiman and his advisers, however, say a low-interest loan through the city is the only route because lenders will not give a conventional loan with a low enough interest rate. The Landing's market of nearby residents and income is too weak. Sleiman had offered to make up the hit by taking up maintenance and other costs, his negotiators said.

But city officials raised another issue -- the parking garage location -- at a meeting last Monday. According to Sleiman's letter, Peyton wants to request proposals for building an east garage. The city then would measure its benefit versus Sleiman's proposal for a garage off Hogan Street.

Sleiman had sought about a $16 million federal enterprise zone loan approved by the city to pay for most of the parking garage on the west side. A binding contract requires the city to spend $3.5 million on an eastern lot or reach a deal for another location. In January, Wendland acknowledged that he suggested the developer seek the loan for the west lot. The city still supports that loan.

The east-side garage suggestion left Sleiman questioning the city's intentions to build a parking garage on valuable riverfront land. A decade ago, a riverfront parking garage was shot down. The current city obligation came out of a failed attempt to put a parking garage near the former Humana building across Water Street from the Landing -- and not on the riverfront.

"The notion of building a parking garage on the river is ludicrous. ... I'm just telling you it's not my intent to build parking on the river," said Peyton, who nonetheless declined to explain why the idea was raised in the meeting.

But Wendland, who was at the discussion, and Wiles said the city was following its contractual obligation to build the parking, and the west garage was still up for negotiations.

As a businessman and large taxpayer, Sleiman wrote, "I was hopeful that the business principles and process proclaimed by the mayor would be applied during our negotiations. Unfortunately, I have discovered that my hope for a business approach and environment was misplaced."

In fact, two City Council members questioned the mayor's handling of the situation. Members Suzanne Jenkins and Kevin Hyde suggested the council may need to take a role in the negotiations, though Hyde said, "This is not the role we should play."

"At some point," Jenkins said, "this mayor and his team have got to be able to juggle more than one ball at a time because that's what it takes to run a growing city."

Peyton declined to address their statements, but Wiles said the mayor had separate teams working on the projects. The seven-month trek of the Landing was because the mayor seeks an acceptable deal.

The Landing project has bumped along as the mayor maneuvered through the dispute on the cost of the new county courthouse and negotiations with the Jaguars over improvements and maintenance to Alltel Stadium.

On the morning of March 9, Sleiman's chief financial officer Barney Smith e-mailed Wendland with the subject, "The silence."

The message continued: "is deafening."

Within an hour, Wendland responded, "Don't read the silence one way or the other. Last week I was told they had to work on the Jags agreement ... and would then turn their focus to the Landing. I am trying to get time scheduled, but calendars are not cooperating."

Times-Union staff writers Matt Galnor and Christopher Calnan contributed to this report.

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While, I would love to see the Landing fully revitalized before the super bowl, I believe thw developer is asking for too much money. He's asking for the city to pay almost half of the expected cost, for his recently purchased property.

Also, while his plans are grand, I think the Landing will be just fine with a new paint job and a parking garage that the city should have been built years ago.

I think its best for the city, the Landing, the proposed Westin Hotel/Condo tower site, and the Humana Tower next door to all team together and construct one huge multi-story garage with street level retail shops, instead of every wanting to build several smaller garages.

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I know it's kind of a waste of tax money, but I still wish they had come to an agreement, and all the plans could have come into fruition. It sounds like Sleiman counted his chickens before they hatched. He bought the Landing and came up with an entire master plan, only to have each segment postponed or cancelled. First it was the marina slips that got put on the shelf, then it was the incentives, and now the parking garages are up in the air.

I went to the Landing, and it was pitiful. It just isn't in a good state right now. I just want it to look good for the tourists coming to town, but also for the citizens of Jacksonville. Let's hope he can do something...

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I agree with your comments regarding the condition of the Landing. While most of the waterfront retail sites are full, the interior mall corridor is mostly vacant. However, I believe its that way due to a lack of parking. I think Sleiman should re-evaluate his plans for the landing. Providing sufficient parking to attract first rate retail shops should be the main focus. Exterior wise, the complex is fine, it just needs a good paint job. After parking is taken care of, the entire interior of the complex needs to be updated beacuse the mall portion looks like a relic from the mid-80s.

In the end though, I don't want to see the city spend to much money on it, because I think it would take away from other important historic restoration projects in the works, like the Barnett, Florida Life, & Brisbee Buildings.

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The plans for the Landing looked impressive, but that is a lot of money.

That money could go a long way to improving life in the city. Eventually the market will force someone to come along and redo the thing by themselves.

Until then, keep up the good work Jacksonville (and Lakelander).

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I think its good that the city is keeping is citizens' money in mind. $54million is alot to anyone, and that particular piece of property seems like it oculd be rennovated for much much less. And until recently I didn't realize it was so bad that it needed to be rebuilt.

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^its in good condition, but it would benefit from an interior renovation. Its still a popular place for waterfront dining & live entertainment, but the retail portion is suffering. Sleiman would save a lot of money by not redoing the outside, which is totally fine, imo. Cutting out a 60' section to open it to the street is a good idea, but as I said earlier, they won't attract any first class retail chains until they have ample parking in place. Building a large joint parking garage across the street would save millions of dollars to all of the party's involved.

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My ambitious dream (though it's not too feasible) for the Landing is that it would resemble Cityplace in downtown West Palm Beach. If anyone's ever been there, they know how cool it is, with a mix of fancy boutiques, department stores, movie theatres, nightclubs, bookstores, lofts and offices.

Sleiman wanted to remodel the exterior in a Mediterranean/Cityplace style. That would be much more attractive to fancy retail, along with the parking. I know space is limited, and the Landing is already packed in its property, ruling out large theatres and bookstores. But I agree with Lakelander, the interior needs way more work than the courtyard.

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If they build a large garage for parking across the street (next to Humana Tower) they would have enough land for uses like a movie theater or large book store. BTW, now that I think of it, a movie theater would probably do great in downtown, because there's no theaters within miles of inner city Jax. The closest one I can think of is the AMC at Regency Square Mall, across the river, in Arlington.

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More non-nightclub entertainment would be wonderful. I remember hearing ideas about a retail/entertainment/condo devolpment on the site of the soon-to-be relocated Duval County Courthouse. Once it relocates, that precious waterfront land will be up for grabs. Hopefully, someone will think to add lots of big stores and entertainment places. Also, I think that a Skyway station should be built on the former courthouse lot.

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^there is a planned route extension of the skyway, that will take it right down Bay Street to Atell Stadium. But, there's no funding for it yet and the city doesn't plan to start thinking about funding until that area develops more, which is currently happening, imo. The Shipyards and Bay Street Town Center projects are already under construction, and if Fidelity picks the Shipyard's site, for their new massive headquarters office, hotel, & condo complex, then I think the city would begin to look into extending it sooner.

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I think it's about time Sleiman got his own "head out of the sand" (see Sleiman's comment in post about the Landing on page two of Jacksonville Projects and Construction List) and realize what he's asking. From the begining the plans seemed fanciful to me. I think we would all like to see the proposed Landing plans reach fruition, but at the moment it seems like that is out of the question. I do hope that he and the city can make some agreement. It would be a lovely addition to the revitalized downtown.

However, one thing that bothered me was when he said

"If they want me to do it, I'll do it," he said. "It's just like something you'd find in an area with 50,000 people -- small-town mentality."

I think that's just mean.

Sorry if my post came across as mean, but his remarks just got to me. This is one of the most friendly forums i have ever been a part of; I don't think i've read a mean comment yet.

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Most likely Sleiman was frustrated when he found out he wasn't going to get all the free money he thought was a given. However, like any business man, he won't let the thing go down the tubes. I'm still confident, he will clean the place up. The best thing in its favor is its waterfront setting, so all he has to do is build off that. I just hope he gives up on that tacky exterior look he came up with.

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I went to the Landing this past weekend. I must say that Sleiman is really improving things around there, by bringing in live entertainment acts and events just about everyday. I've also noticed that people are starting to return in large numbers because of the added entertainment value. I think this goes to show that he doesn't need all that city money to make the place successful. The best thing it has is its location and all he has to do is keep offering things that aren't offered anywhere else in Jax (ex. bringing bands and events into the courtyard on a regular basis). Here are a couple of pics from the Landing.

overlooking the courtyard

landing-courtyard.jpg

inside the Landing

landing-1.jpg

the food court

landing-food-court.jpg

a seafood restuarant near the courtyard.

landing-dining.jpg

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I think that the Landing would be fine with a new paint and more parking. Sleiman needs to come up with the money himself so that the city can use the money elsewhere.

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