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City terminates Laura Place deal

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by J. Brooks Terry

Staff Writer

Ending months of speculation, Signet Development and their attorneys received official notice this week that the City would like to cancel the existing, but long languishing deal.

In 2002 the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop three historic buildings downtown. Signet eventually won that bid, promising a mixed-use, office-retail complex, providing they would receive an $11 million low-interest City loan and an additional $3 million Historic Trust Fund grant.

Work to rehab the Marble Bank, the Bisbee and the Florida Life buildings was to begin in January. However, as that deadline passed, no one seemed to have an answer as to why.

In March, the JEDC and Signet were said to be,

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I'm glad to see that the city is focusing more on residential with this project. Although, the Signet deal did have a residential component. I believe the Florida Life building was going to be 10-12 apartments. I did like the Signet proposal and there is still room for more office space in downtown long term.

I really don't understand why the city didn't pursue a larger residential component to begin with. 11 E. Forsyth, Knight Lofts and Berkman Plaza were well underway when the Signet proposal was accepted.

The group that did the Knight Lofts had proposed a largely residential alternative at that time, but the city accepted Signet's proposal instead. The other party also wanted to bring the old Barnett building at 118 W. Adams into the project as well.

The downside of this is that this delays significantly the redevelopment of these buildings. I certainly hope that they have at least been stablized from further damage from the elements and neglect.

Also, the buildings will largely look as they do today when the Super Bowl starts. That certainly won't reflect well on the city.

I also hope the city realizes that incentives will still be needed for these buildings to be rehabed. I hope Peyton's tightwad policies don't lead these buildings to stay vacant for years longer.

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I agree on all those terms. I can't imagine why they didn't originally intend for it to be residential. They've been wanted downtown housing since like 2000, and the Laura Place deal was signed in 2002. Go figure... I'm just glad that we finally get to hear some news about Laura Place.

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New RFP planned for Laura Street buildings

by J. Brooks Terry

Staff Writer

The Marble Bank, Bisbee and Florida Life buildings will not be renovated, at least not under the terms of a Signet Development proposal that was terminated recently by the Downtown Development Authority. At its meeting Wednesday, the DDA discussed what could and should be done with the unsecured, dilapidated buildings.

DDA managing director Al Battle said the “prudent” course of action would be to determine the condition of the buildings first, discuss the available options and later reveal the “framework” of a new Request for Proposals within 60 days.

“Obviously, the timing is imperative on this,” he said, “But we want to develop a new, specific RFP that is more in line with our strategic goals downtown.”

Battle said more housing and retail were among those goals.

Signet’s proposal would have delivered more of an office development.

“I would suggest we form a subcommittee that could investigate a more suitable future use,” said Battle.

The DDA agreed the buildings should be redeveloped, however some questioned how much longer they could stand.

Buildings are truly failing,” said DDA member David Auchter. “Whoever develops them will need to work within the historical guidelines, and the cost in the next six to 12 months is going to start increasing exponentially.”

Battle said the City never anticipated having building ownership for more than a short time, making that responsibility somebody else’s.

The City purchased the buildings nearly three years ago when they were appraised at approximately $3 million.

“The condition of the buildings has been a part of our discussions for some time, but we felt the progress on the Signet development was just over the horizon,” he said.

Auchter said the RFP process would steal too much time from the buildings ever-shrinking lifespan.

“It’s going to cost a fortune to develop them,” he said. “The right agency needs to get in there and secure them before even more damage is done.

“Pretty soon there will be nothing left to RFP. They’re in a state of ruin and getting worse.”

Battle said the City’s short term goal would would be to secure the buildings.

“In doing so and making sure they don’t continue to degrade, we’ll be able to buy more time and develop a more focused RFP,” he said. “We’d rather do that than rush to judgment on something else.”

Battle was unsure how long the entire RFP process would take or when another developer would be selected.

In 2002, the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission recommended Signet to develop the buildings. As part of that agreement, they were to be issued a low interest $11 million loan and an additional $3 million grant from the Historic Trust Fund.

Battle said those funds would be re-dispersed and available for new projects in the area

It seems to me that the city needs to spend some emergency funds to stabilize these buildings immediately. Surely Signet has done some research on what the buildings need in order to do that. I fear one or more of these buildings is going to turn up "unsalvagable" before it's all over with.

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City rethinks focus of planned Laura Place

DDA originally wanted a mixed-use project, but now it wants proposals for housing instead.

By CHRISTOPHER CALNAN

The Times-Union

The city wants to cancel a year-old agreement with a Jacksonville company to redevelop three vacant historic downtown buildings into a mixed-use project because the market calls for more downtown housing than office space.

The Downtown Development Authority now plans to issue a new request for proposals asking developers to bid on renovating the Bisbee, Florida Life and Marble Bank buildings into what's called Laura Place -- with a greater emphasis on housing.

The Downtown Development Authority plans to issue a new request for proposals asking developers to bid on renovating these buildings, with an emphasis on housing.

The Times-Union file

The buildings are on the northeast corner of Laura and Forsyth streets.

The decision comes a year after the DDA and the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission approved $18 million in incentives for Signet Development Ltd. to complete the project. But the deal was never approved by City Council because city officials weren't sure about the projects focus, Signet spokesman Michael Munz said.

"We completely understand that the city wants to look at the development of the three buildings to focus on the retail and residential components," he said. "We'll carefully review the [request for proposals] and respond accordingly."

DDA Executive Director Al Battle said other successful downtown residential projects, combined with a concern for exacerbating an already soft office space market, spurred city officials the reconsideration of Laura Place.

"It definitely made us think more deeply about this and gave us a chance to ask, 'Is this deal the right thing to do?'" he said. "We want to make sure we get it right."

Battle wrote a letter to Signet President Anthony Manna last week advising Manna of plans to present the proposal to the DDA on Wednesday.

Signet planned to convert the buildings into loft apartments, office condominiums, office space and about 5,000 square feet of retail space. The entire project was expected to cost $34.7 million.

An artist's rendering of a proposed mixed-use development called Laura Place at Forsyth and Laura streets.

Special to the Times-Union

The JEDC approved Signet's incentive package despite strong objections by JEDC member Charlie Appleby.

"I can't see how the city could be involved in a project with this much risk," he told the commission in June 2003.

On Friday, Appleby said he was pleased the project will be re-examined. Such a measure follows Mayor John Peyton's plan to look at the JEDC's policies with an eye toward making the agency more efficient, Appleby said.

In May, Peyton declared a 60-day moratorium on financial incentives beginning June 1.

The moratorium announcement came one after city officials began reviewing how TriLegacy Group LLC spent $36.5 million in public incentives on the $860 million Shipyards project, the largest private investment real estate project in downtown history.

Downtown projects -- whether office or residential -- are mostly a crapshoot, said James Citrano, managing director of the local office of real estate broker CB Richard Ellis.

"You're really throwing a dart into a blind spot," he said. "That's what's called 'risk.'"

Citrano said the historic significance of the Laura Place buildings will make the project more difficult, and expensive, to complete.

In 2001, members of the Downtown Historic Task Force decided that the three buildings, which are catercorner to the Bank of America tower, were among 10 that should be reviewed for redevelopment.

The city bought the three buildings for $3 million from Angela Schneider in February 2002. It began negotiations with Signet in October 2002 after choosing the company from three bidding developers.

Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, said time is of the essence.

"There's an urgency to get that property stabilized," she said. "It continues to deteriorate. The preservation community is very concerned. We need to save that corner."

Citrano's comments are overly pessimistic, given the recent news about downtown's residential renaissance.

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Downtown projects -- whether office or residential -- are mostly a crapshoot, said James Citrano, managing director of the local office of real estate broker CB Richard Ellis.

Wow, what's this guy's problem. 11 East, The Knight Building, Parks @ the Cathedral, San Marco Place, etc. have all been highly successful projects.

The only ones that have struggled so far seem to be Berkman Plaza & the Shipyards.

As far as Laura Place goes. I would like to see them go over to the LB Jax company, as soon as possible. LB Jax, the company that renovated the Knight Building into lofts and is presently planning to fix up the 19 story, old Barnett Bank Tower. Those old buildings need to be saved as quick as possible. Everyday they sit out, left open to the natural environment, the price to repair them goes up higher. Just letting LB Jax take it will allow them to construct a facility that can house parking for all of those old buildings in that area and restore the Laura Place buildings into something that fits in with whats being planned or built nearby. Another company I wouldn't mind taking a look at it, is Vestcor. Because their local and they have deep pockets and a good tract record.

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I agree with everthing in Lakelander's last post, except I would not put Berkman Plaza in the same category as the Shipyards. Berkman filled up reasonably quickly as an apartment building and is well ahead of schedule in selling out as a condominium. They were expecting to take two years to sell out and are 50% in well under a year. Even the penthouses are 50% sold.

Also, the Home Street Lofts project sold all twelve units before construction was complete. Not to mention the Peninsula is doing well also.

This Citrano guy is or was on the DDA board. He should know the positive side of all the projects downtown. Perhaps he was misquoted.

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I like the idea of Vestcor/LB Jax working on Laura Place. They both did a good job fixing up 11E and W.A. Knight. Time is of the essence. I hope that all three buildings make it to the final project. The historic buildings help make Jacksonville great. It would be horrible to see one of those go. The site is one of the best locations in downtown.

BTW, any news on the renovation of the Ambassador hotel?

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The last thing I heard, was that the Ambassador's owner was in the process of gaining the city's approval to renovate the building by turning it into apartments. That news was in the "Downtown This Week" magazine a couple of weeks ago.

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