Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood has for years been an area in transition.
Although the residential market has roared back since its worst period, the commercial district has never followed along — a defect holding the neighborhood back from attracting even more of a residential base.
That could be changing: Last week, the owners of Bono’s Bar-B-Que said they were interested in a long-vacant building on North Main Street once occupied by Henrietta’s. The restaurateurs want to turn the 7,700-square-foot structure into a entertainment complex, breathing life into a strip that consists mostly of shuttered buildings, automotive service businesses and pawn shops.
However, it’s unlikely that one barbecue joint will be the tipping point that signals the success of the neighborhood.
The challenge for the neighborhood is to attract a level of commercial investment in line with the residential investment that has seen housing values grow.
Doing so could have spillover effects, showing that retail can work in the urban core. More commercial and retail operations would also provide employment opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods, many of which have suffered endemic unemployment as businesses have abandoned the area.
SUCCESS ELSE WHERE
Springfield isn’t the only historic Jacksonville neighborhood that has long been working to rebuild itself to what it once was. The Riverside area might be Springfield’s closest counterpart: Both had neighborhood preservation societies form in 1974. Both have the towering oak trees and the historic homes.
But Riverside, by any meaning of the word, has been a success, and Springfield, which may be on the cusp, has not yet reached glory.
Experts on Springfield point to a smaller economic base, a deeper decline and an incorrect perception that the area isn’t safe as reasons the neighborhood hasn’t seen the same level of success as Riverside.
Wayne Wood founded Riverside Avondale Preservation Inc. in 1974 as he watched historical homes being lost to commercial encroachment and deterioration. It’s been a long fight, but the fruits are now showing.
“We’ve fought back and won back many of the areas,” he said. “Even as late as seven or eight years ago, half of it was not a very nice place.”
A similar organization formed the same year — Springfield Preservation and Revitalization.
“It’s hard to say which neighborhood was more downtrodden,” Wood said about the two areas. “They were both in a state of decline.”
Christina Parrish, executive director of SPAR, doesn’t hesitate to say that Springfield was in a worse spot than Riverside.
“Springfield got off to a slower start and has a longer climb,” she said. “If you could measure how much Springfield has already improved, you would see we have improved just as much, we just have farther to go.”
While both neighborhoods are steeped in history, Riverside’s commercial districts are healthier than Springfield’s. In many parts of Riverside, a vacant space is likely to be snapped up and — a splash of paint, a hammer and a few nails later — a new tenant opens up shop.
PERCEPTION OF CRIME
Jack Meeks and his wife JoAnn Tredennick sat on their porch on 2nd and Hubbard streets in historic Springfield.
“They used to call this area little Vietnam,” Tredennick said.
“And it wasn’t a compliment,” Meeks closed out the thought.
Tredennick said prostitutes and drug dealers roamed the streets in front of their home as recently as 2003, the year they bought the 4,200-square-foot house.
“But it’s peaceful now,” she said.
The major retail strip in Springfield was once a dangerous place, but it too has seen drastic improvements in recent years.
Costandi “Gus” Mashni still keeps a few guns behind the counter at the Moneytree Jewelry and Pawn on North Main Street. Mashni left Palestine in 1971 for America, arriving in Jacksonville in 1972 and getting a job at a Northside Sears. He eventually saved enough to buy a pawn shop on North Main Street in 1989 when there were nine other similar business in Springfield.
That number eventually ballooned to 12 pawn shops.
Crime was so bad in the early ’90s that North Main Street had a dedicated police foot patrol, he said.
“The reputation was not so great,” Mashni said. “People used to go ‘wow, really?’ when I told them I had a business in Springfield.”
He said the area has seen great strides since he opened up shop and that crime has drastically decreased. He hasn’t had a break-in since the city hosted the Superbowl, although he said that may be attributable to him installing roll-down shutters on the building.
“It’s improved to the point I don’t fear walking around at night,” he said.
Meeks said the perception that Springfield is a dangerous place has held the neighborhood back. He said that at least within historic Springfield, that problem is unjustified as crime is actually lower than many of the surrounding areas.
He’s correct when talking about the Springfield Historic District, the 500 acres established as a residential neighborhood in 1871 and bounded by 1st and 12th Streets to the north and south and Ionia Street and Boulevard to the east and west.
There’s less crime in historic Springfield than in Riverside — but Riverside is about three times as large as historic Springfield.
There were a total of 795 crimes reported in Riverside compared to 413 in historic Springfield in the 12 months ending April 2016.
But just a few blocks north of historic Springfield, the lower crime total doesn’t seem as definitive. There were four homicides reported just outside the boundaries of historic Springfield compared to one homicide reported in Riverside.
But Meeks feels secure — and believes in the area. As more of the old homes are renovated and occupied by owners, it will continue the momentum that has been gained over the years.
A few blocks from his house, Meeks owns an office building where he runs his accounting firm and has been watching the slow progress of the neighborhood. One sign of progress — Dumpsters on the streets signifying restorations in progress.
There are more of them today then there has been since he moved into the neighborhood, he said.
Wood, the architect of the Riverside resurgence, would agree.
“If Springfield continues to improve at its current rate, then Springfield is a good bet for the future,” he said.
HOME VALUES JUMP
In 1996, the average value of homes in Springfield was $67,400, according to real estate statistics firm Zillow, almost $9,000 below the citywide average value of $76,200 that year. Property values in both Jacksonville and Springfield climbed until late 2006, when Jacksonville as a whole peaked at $181,000 and Springfield at $168,400 before beginning to drop.
The nadir of that fall was in August 2012 citywide, according to Zillow, when values hit $98,600, while Springfield bottomed out about eight months after that at $85,000.
Because the citywide data takes into account more homes across more areas, its increase in values is smoother and more consistent, reaching $135,400 in March, the most recent data available. Springfield’s property values sharply shot up but then flattened out, landing at $118,000 in March.
The increasing property values signify that the area is headed in the right direction and validate some of the work that residents of Springfield have put into rehabbing the homes, say those familiar with the neighborhood.
But there are still challenges that must be overcome, Wood said.
Riverside’s transition to a prominent neighborhood was aided by a few things that Springfield lacks, Wood said.
Riverside houses were typically built on larger lots and attracted more affluent owners — then and now. Wood said there was more wood-frame construction in Springfield than there was in Riverside. Also, Springfield has suffered more absentee owners leading to some of the properties to be in a higher state of disrepair.
Crissie Cudd, a real estate agent that lives in Springfield, moved into the neighborhood in 2010 as the Great Recession had destroyed property values across the country and in the struggling neighborhood.
She said that appraisals and home values are starting to climb in the neighborhood.
As more of the houses are renovated, she said, the next piece of the puzzle that’s needed is a thriving commercial district like Riverside’s Five Points or King Street districts.
There, too, Springfield faces challenges compared to Riverside. Main Street cuts through Springfield and is lined with shuttered buildings in need of thousands of dollars of renovations before tenants can turn them into restaurants or retail storefronts.
SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSES FEW AND FAR BETWEEN
The prime example of a successful business is Uptown Kitchen + Bar on Main and East 3rd streets.
John Valentino, one of the owners in the restaurant, said the ownership group chose to extend their lease on the building last year and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.
“You always get a lot of positive feedback from anyone that goes for the first time,” he said. “I would love to see more businesses and restaurants come to Springfield.”
He said the rents are similar to Murray Hill where Valentino’s group recently bought Edgewood Bakery, which it will turn into an outpost of Southside’s hip lunch destination French Pantry.
“The numbers have to work,” he said. “But you have to have cooperative landlords.”
Many in Springfield point to the owners of the buildings along Main Street as holding that commercial area back. Two buildings on Main Street have been condemned and other buildings would need thousands of dollars in renovations before the structures would be usable.
Carrie Smith, a regional managing partner at commercial brokerage firm Franklin Street, said asking rents in Springfield can be in the high single digits to low teens per square foot. She also said that’s comparable to Murray Hill in terms of price, but that fact could change.
“Murray Hill has seen a lot more businesses open in the past 12 months than in Springfield,” she said.
Parrish once ran a guitar shop in Five Points called Blue Moon Music in the ’90s and sympathizes with some of the business owners. She said criticism of the owners of the buildings in Springfield may be unjustified as the recession caused property values to plummet, making it difficult for owners to reinvest in their properties.
She pointed out that as downtrodden as the Five Points area was when she owned her guitar shop, it never was as vacant as Main Street. Plus, the commercial buildings are much larger and more difficult to maintain than the ones in Five Points, she said.
“They [the property owners] are starting to come out from underwater,” she said.
Even as owners recover, Springfield’s demographics could prevent other businesses from locating there.
The median yearly income for the 32206 zip code, which encompasses Springfield as well as areas to the east and north, is $24,000 — about half of the median income in the rest of the city, according to U.S. Census data. Average income — possibly boosted by the influx of high-income residents — fares a little better, coming in at about $36,000. Still, Jacksonville’s average income is about $64,000.
Springfield is still finding its way, with SPAR marketing the area and attempting to continue the momentum until a critical mass has been reached. Parrish points out that there are more events being held like the Jacksonville PorchFest, a music festival where musicians play into the night as crowds walk Springfield’s streets. That event is scheduled for Nov. 5, the third time it will be held in the neighborhood.
This weekend, the neighborhood hosts its Historic Springfield Tour of Homes, attracting hundreds of people.
Parrish and other members of SPAR hope the marketing efforts they put forth will continue to attract residents to the oak tree-shaded streets and the historic houses underneath them.
In years past, such events have been followed by more calls to Realtors and more customers at the few commercial spots in the neighborhood — signs, perhaps, that the tipping point is close.