Ending a lengthy legal dispute and aiming to redevelop one of the most prominent features of Downtown Jacksonville’s Riverfront, the City is officially taking over complete ownership of the Jacksonville Landing.
And that means the Landing itself is going to soon come down.
“I agree it’s iconic. I was here when it was built, and I miss the kind of vibrancy and excitement that the Landing brought to Jacksonville once upon a time. But, that’s kind of history. That isn’t where we are today, and it’s not going to regain that stature by us wishing that it would. So, it’s time to move on, take the next step, and replace it with Jacksonville’s future, as opposed to kind of wishful thinking about Jacksonville’s past,” says Councilwoman Lori Boyer.
In a 15-1 vote, the City Council has approved an overall $18 million package. Councilwoman Anna Lopez Brosche was the sole “no” vote, while Councilmen Garrett Dennis, Matt Schellenberg, and Samuel Newby were not present for the vote.
$15 million is a payment to Jacksonville Landing Investments to end the long-term lease they have with the City. The City owns the land, but JLI owns and operates the Landing building, and that arrangement was slated to last through at least 2056. The relationship strained recently, with the Landing claiming the City was not providing the maintenance and security it was required to, and the City contending the Landing was not the first-class facility that had been promised.
“This is about settling litigation that’s been hanging around for more than two years I think, and what it’s going to cost us to get out from under some risk that we have if we continue the litigation. Because the tenant- the plaintiff- has a 37-year remaining term on their lease. So this isn’t about buying a building, this is about getting ourselves out from under a lawsuit and moving forward with Plan B, and Plan B’s gotta be better than Plan A, who’s ribbon was cut in 1987,” says Councilman John Crescimbeni, who characterized the Landing as destined to not succeed.
There is one remaining legal matter, dealing with a parking lot on the eastern portion of the parcel. The settlement allows the City to take ownership of the lot, despite the administrative and accounting matters that will still be addressed by a judge.
The remaining $3 million is split equally between closing out subtenant leases and demolishing the building /restoring the site.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry's Chief of Staff Brian Hughes, who is also serving as the Interim CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, says there are fewer than three dozen remaining businesses, and almost all are on month-to-month leases. Of those few that are not, one is in the process of being evicted, two have specific closeout terms in their leases, and one has been having "meaningful conversations" with the City, according to the Administration. The City and DIA intend to work with all of these businesses about possible relocation in other areas of Downtown.
“As much as people may have had issues with Mr. Sleiman [of JLI] about one thing or another and his operation of the property, he’s a really good shopping center operator, and he’s got shopping centers all over the city. And if he felt like he couldn’t get first class tenants in this building and keep those spaces full, and we’re only at 50% occupancy, how in the world do you think the City of Jacksonville as a government entity is going to run a shopping center. I mean, that is not our job, it is not our business, and we are certainly not going to go out and find better tenants and keep it more active and safer and more vibrant than it has been right now,” Boyer says.
The final share of the bill would be used to demolish the existing building and put grass on the property. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has previously put forward a plan for the property that involves public green space and two structures for development.
There was an attempt by Councilman Danny Becton to put the demolition funding “below the line”, meaning the Council would have to separately approve the demolition in separate action in the future. The intent of that, according to Becton, was to address concerns he has heard about there not yet being a defined plan for what the City will do with the property in the future. He also questioned the removal of what he called an “iconic” venue, which hosts many big events through the year.
“In a Downtown that is limited with public space and venues giving visitors and groups of our city somewhere to gather, we are unnecessarily eliminating this facility that is used for events like the Georgia/Florida weekend, the TaxSlayer [Gator] Bowl weekend, Christmas festivities, and many other things, to name a few. We are eliminating the only iconic venue of our city for a grassy knoll,” he says.
The Administration says there is no final vision for the future of the property yet, as they intend to seek community input, but they don't feel that any option would involve using the existing building. Council President took it further to say keeping the building would be a "maintenance nightmare" that would require constant security and surveillance.
“Every working day for the last eight years, I’ve gone to work across from the Landing. I will not go there. I go there occasionally, I go there about every six months, just to see really how bad it is- how many tenants have left, what tenants are still there, what is not working. The bathrooms are horrendous, I won’t even use them. The upstairs dining area is now closed,” he says, adding that he also actively tells other people not to go.
Councilman Bill Gulliford says the City likely would have given incentives to tear the building down to any future developer, so this just expedites the timeline. He further says no prior redevelopment plans have involved preserving the facility.
“I’m just tickled to death to see there’s movement on the Landing. We all know that it’s been in decline for the last however many years. I don’t have any heartburn about demolishing the structure, frankly. I think any suggestion as to space not being available for events will only will only be a short term or short period before you would come up with another solution,” he says.
$3.5 million of the $18 million tab is cash-on-hand, and the rest is coming through borrowed funds.
The City says they will formally close the deal on the lease termination within the next 45 days. Hughes expects closing out the subtenant leases to take up to four months beyond that, and demolition could happen within six months.
Beyond that, the Council has high hopes.
“Let’s move forward. Let’s move Jacksonville forward, let’s move our Downtown forward. Yeah, we’ve got the City Hall [Annex] demolished, we’ve got the old Courthouse demolished, we’ll have sooner than later the Jacksonville Landing demolished, and you’re going to see a beautiful new Riverfront, with lots of activities, and not have the building that we see today,” says Councilman Tommy Hazouri.
The outgoing management of the Landing is looking forward as well, announcing a “Last Bash” just hours after the Council vote.
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