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The Rise of the Southbank Skyline

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The Rise of the Southbank

By CHRISTOPHER CALNAN

The Times-Union

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It was 1997 before Ward Lariscy decided his Southbank antique shop needed a sign.

Until then, there wasn't a need for one. Foot traffic was all but nonexistent then.

The area was mostly hotels and office buildings when Lariscy started his San Marco store in 1981 but needed more room to store his goods. He kept the San Marco store but used the Southbank space for the overflow.

Most customers drove in from places like Amelia Island, so the warehouse was easy to get to from Interstate 95 and parking was readily available.

A sign wasn't needed.

"We figured in this neighborhood, what walk-in traffic would we get?'"

But then restaurants and small shops began moving in for much the same reasons Lariscy did. The rents were a lot cheaper than nearby San Marco and there was more parking.

When Lariscy finally put the name R. Ward Lariscy Antiques on his squat, yellow building, it was more than a sign. It was a sign of things to come.

Some residents and community business owners say the high-brow San Marco neighborhood is gradually extending itself down Hendricks Avenue and San Marco Boulevard to the river, in the process creating a type of San Marco sprawl.

There's nothing gradual about three proposed projects expected to create 1,200 units in five residential towers on the Southbank. One proposed project would be south of Lariscy down the St. Johns River, two towers with a total 550 units, next to the Aetna Building.

But the other two would be across the street from him, on opposites sides of Riverplace Boulevard. The two projects are expected to combine for nearly 700 new units.

The massive influx of housing in the area is expected to bring equally massive changes to the Southbank.

Observers say the projects are just the beginning of a process that will gentrify the area. They may also create a sudden need for residents working across the river to ride the sparsely used public Skyway system.

Shops and restaurants will migrate up and down Hendricks Avenue and San Marco Boulevard creating one large San Marco, an area busy with shoppers during the day; diners and club-goers at night.

It's a potential windfall for retailers, especially those with high-end customers -- like Lariscy's Antiques.

Instead of relying on customers driving to his store, Ward Lariscy expects they'll soon be within walking distance.

"We were kind of a lonely little place for a long time because you don't get much foot traffic," he said. "With more walk-in traffic we could add more small merchandise. I think we'd do extremely well."

San Marco sizzle

Luxury living is growing downtown, but the amount of demand is a matter of opinion.

The portion of downtown condominiums categorized as luxury has more than doubled in the last three years, according to a study released last month by Raymond Rodriguez, president of the Real Estate Strategy Center of Florida Inc.

About 60 percent of Jacksonville's downtown units for sale are luxury units, compared with 29 percent in 2002, the study says. Rodriguez classifies the remainder as market-rate units, meaning close to (within 20 percent) the average price.

None of the planned units fit the definition of "affordable," which is 30 percent of a household's gross monthly income, he said. (For example, a household that grosses $1,800 a month would be expected to pay about $540 in rent.)

It's unclear what the demand will be for high-end condominiums planned for the Southbank, Rodriguez said.

"It looks promising, but the outcome is not yet determined," he said. "No one knows what the future will bring."

It's difficult to find valid comparisons to the Southbank. While sales of high-priced downtown residential projects on the Northbank have been moderately successful, the Southbank is a different animal.

That's mostly because San Marco Square's shops, restaurants and clubs make living on the Southbank more attractive than the Northbank.

At night, San Marco sizzles while downtown fizzles.

"The amenities are so much closer," said Al Battle, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. "The environment is there for [residential projects] to be successful, which on the Northbank we're trying to create that environment."

Residents of the new projects will be mostly older affluent couples who don't want to maintain a single-family home (also called empty-nesters) and young professionals, said real estate development consultant David Parker, president of Jacksonville's Parker Associates.

That's what South Florida developers Harold Dodt and Jeffrey Douglas are counting on.

The two bought the Aetna building in January, and announced plans for two 48-story residential towers just south of the Acosta Bridge in March. The buildings would be the tallest in the city if they are completed.

Prices for the 550 units would start at about $160,000.

Since the announcement, however, Dodt has failed to return repeated phone calls seeking further information about the project.

Meanwhile, two projects on opposite sides of Riverplace Boulevard are scheduled to add nearly 700 units to the city's inventory.

North Miami Beach-based American Land Ventures LLC plans to build two other residential towers along the St. Johns, between the SouthTrust tower and the Chart House restaurant.

The 36-story Peninsula condo tower will include 234 units with prices ranging from the low $300,000s to $1.8 million. The developer said 146 of the units are reserved.

American Land plans to build a 28-story rental apartment building, called The Strand, with 295 units right next door. The project is nearly two years from completion and American Land isn't taking apartment reservations yet.

Across Riverplace Boulevard, Jacksonville's Chase Properties plans to break ground in July or August on the 21-story San Marco Place. Prices for the project's 141 units range from the $190,000s to $550,000, developer Michael Balanky said.

It sold out in late April, but Chase Properties is still taking back-up reservations in case deals fall through, he said.

Jacksonville native Balanky, who is developing the project with partner Jay Southerland, said the neighborhood is capable of handling the huge influx of residents his project and the American Land buildings will cause. The Skyway to downtown is next to the site and that should mitigate the traffic congestion, he said.

Although the building is in an area typically referred to as the Southbank, Balanky said San Marco was chosen as a name because it's better known than the Southbank.

"That's why we went with that name," he said. "You kind of want to identify your project with a neighborhood."

Granvil Tracy, president of American Land Ventures, said the Southbank is similar to long-ignored neighborhood south of Miami that suddenly became popular after being developed.

The reason is a simple one, proximity to downtown.

"People want to live near where they work," he said. "I think that the connection between Southbank and San Marco and downtown will get stronger."

As that happens, Tracy said the melding of San Marco and the Southbank into one large neighborhood is inevitable.

"You're kind of seeing the retail and the gentrification happening," he said. "It's an evolving process."

Lariscy likened the area to Atlanta's trendy Buckhead neighborhood, which has expanded its boundaries over the years.

The distinction become inconsequential as the benefits of being associated with toney San Marco grow.

"The local people know better, but people moving in don't," Lariscy said. "But it doesn't really matter."

Traffic concerns

The proposed towers are in the perfect place, said Mark MacLean, president of the San Marco Preservation Society.

It's better to have them along the St. Johns than in a residential neighborhood.

"We're pretty accepting of large structures in that area, on the Southbank," MacLean said. "I think we're happy and I think it will be a plus overall."

Jennifer Price, publisher of San Marco magazine and president of the neighborhood merchant's association, said the area's revitalization will make it be considered part of downtown.

"That's our goal," she said, "having people concepting downtown as more than just the Landing and the Modis Building."

Price also envisions the area as becoming a Beverly Hills-quality shopping area during the next few years.

"I definitely think in five, six years, maybe seven, we'll have the highest end shops and places to live from San Marco Square all the way to the river," she said. "It'll be fabulous."

The neighborhood has wanted a Publix supermarket for years, but last month, a St. Petersburg developer called off plans to build a shopping center with a Publix in San Marco because the cost of land was too high.

Regardless, Balanky said it's just a matter of time for a supermarket to open in the area.

"It's obviously important," he said. "It's not going to make or break [residential development]. People are coming to San Marco and the Southbank without it. But Publix is inevitable. They're going to be here, it's just a matter of getting the deal done."

City Councilman Reggie Fullwood, who represents part of the Southbank, is excited about the projects. But he's unconvinced there's enough demand to make them all popular.

"It's just hard for me to believe that all these projects will be successful because you have so many units coming on line," he said.

He also wants the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to consider re-establishing its mid-day trolley service between San Marco Square and the Southbank.

"There may be a critical mass to make that work again," MacLean said. "There's only so much the square can hold and only so much the contiguous roads can hold."

The service, which began in February 2003 as a one-year pilot project, ended in January when it attracted less than half the number of riders it needed.

The one-year program cost $235,000 to operate. Called the Hibiscus route, the Trolley ran Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. between downtown's South Bank and San Marco.

JTA spokesman Mike Miller said the authority would gladly apply for future funding of the service if there's a proven demand.

"Give us the riders and we'll give you the trolley, that's my motto," he said.

If the two planned projects don't create more riders, development of the old Southside Generating Station property may.

JEA imploded the power plant two years ago and is near the end of a $21 million project to prepare the 25-acre tract for redevelopment. It will become a temporary theme park, called the NFL Experience, for visitors when the city hosts next year's Super Bowl.

Earlier this month, The Haskell Co. won the right to negotiate with the JEA to develop the site.

For consultant David Parker, former chairman of Downtown Housing Task Force for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the residential development downtown -- including the Southbank -- is long overdue.

Parker envisions more residential towers along the St. Johns, but it will be a long, slow process, and a transition that feeds off its own success.

"It's a circular impact," he said. "People will move downtown because there's dining and places to go. And more dining will come because there are more people. The two are synergistic.

"It's kind of satisfying to see it finally happen."

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The 36-story Peninsula condo tower will include 234 units with prices ranging from the low $300,000s to $1.8 million. The developer, Granvil Tracy (left), said 146 of the units are reserved.

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Jacksonville's Chase Properties plans to break ground in July or August on the 21-story San Marco Place. Prices for the project's 141 units range from the $190,000s to $550,000, developer Michael Balanky (left) said. He is with partner Jay Southerland.

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Details have been scarce about dual residential towers proposed to stand on either side of the Aetna building at 841Prudential Drive since developers brought their plans to the city in March. Developer Hal Dodt has failed to return repeated phone calls seeking further information about the project.

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