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County Courthouse: Law office limbo

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Law office limbo

Delay in completion of courthouse causes developers to proceed slowly

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Ryan Geddes

Staff Writer

DOWNTOWN -- Downtown developers are cautiously moving forward with plans for office condominiums aimed at the legal community, as the new Duval County Courthouse Complex grinds to a halt, put on hold indefinitely until city planners rework the overbudget project.

Originally scheduled for completion in mid-2006, the courthouse was to be a catalyst for commercial development near the La Villa area, west of the burgeoning Hemming Plaza government and municipal center. The seven-block site bounded by Duval, Broad, Julia and Forsyth streets was expected to draw attorneys and legal professionals away from the East Bay Street area, near the current courthouse, to new buildings or refurbished properties closer to the new courthouse.

But city officials now estimate that the new courthouse complex might not begin construction until early 2007 and would likely take years to complete. Although the city has made no firm plans for the design or scope of the new courthouse, officials remain committed to the seven-block site. The Downtown Master Plan, adopted by the City Council in 2000, places the site in the "Central Civic Core District" and calls for the construction of the new courthouse within that district.

"Our goal is still the same," said Joel Reitzer, courthouse project director with the city's Department of Public Works. "In terms of long-term planning, we are going to use the [current] site. But that doesn't mean we would not take interim steps -- things that might need doing at the existing courthouse in the meantime, or other solutions."

While the city rethinks its approach to the overbudget and behind-schedule county courthouse complex, Downtown property owners and developers with an interest in the project are tweaking their strategies.

"Rather than go full-throttle and [arrange] our construction financing now, we have to wait on it until we know," said Sam Easton, a principal with Easton Sanderson & Co., a Jacksonville-based commercial real estate firm.

Easton Sanderson is planning two 12-story office condo buildings of 100,000 square feet each on the block bounded by Duval, Church, Pearl, and Julia streets, just north of the proposed courthouse site.

The Ambassador Hotel, also located on that block, would be transformed into a 50-unit apartment building as part of the project. Retail space and a parking garage would be added to the block as well.

"We wanted it to dovetail with the completion of the courthouse. Our project is really hand-in-hand" with the new courthouse project, Easton said .

The Farah & Farah law firm, partnering with Easton Sanderson, announced in early 2004 its plans to build a nine-story office building on the site. But the firm has since decided not to build the building and instead would occupy 30,000 square feet in one of the two planned office condo buildings, Easton said.

While Easton Sanderson and the Farah brothers wait on the future of the courthouse, Allied Capital Corp., owner of the Greenleaf building on the corner of Laura and Adams streets, is beginning to actively market its own office condo project.

Located two blocks from the eastern edge of the proposed courthouse site and one block south of Hemming Plaza, the Greenleaf & Crosby Building is

Foley & Lardner's former home. The law firm moved to the Modis building in June.

The 12-story, Class A tower was built in 1927 and has about 88,500 square feet of available space, including first-floor retail space, according to Addison Commercial Real Estate Inc., which is marketing the property.

"It's a great opportunity for ownership for the small to medium-size firm. The building is located so close to the government center, and attorneys are

always looking to get closer to the courthouse," said Bob Knight, a broker with Addison.

Knight said Addison is marketing many of the property's full-floor condos for about $787,500 each, or around $175 per square foot. Such aggressive pricing compares favorably with full-service Class A leasing agreements in the $19-per-square-foot range, he said.

"Condos work for that building, mainly for attorneys," said Ray Rodriguez, president of the Real Estate Strategy Center of North Florida Inc. "It makes financial sense for them."

Rodriguez agreed that the advertised pricing for the property is competitive with current Downtown office leasing rates, especially when buyers gain the benefit of ownership.

"Even though interest rates are going up, it's not astronomical," Rodriguez said. "As long as rates stay under 10 percent, their market will be OK."

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