When several Downtown entities combined their efforts to create a cohesive entertainment district last year, it seemed like the final piece of the puzzle for the long-suffering urban core.
At the same time, public meetings were being held for The Landing’s potential redevelopment. Three proposals were still being mulled by the city for rights to develop The Shipyards, with Shad Khan’s mixed-use development leading the pack. Yet another proposal for the Laura Street Trio was being circulated.
One year later, however, those efforts have faded. The Shipyards redevelopment flamed out due to potential environmental problems. The Landing is in the midst of a lawsuit with the city. Businesses are closing down or moving altogether, while the organizers pushing Downtown redevelopment, like Elbow founders Grant Nielsen and Trey Hebron, have bowed out of recent efforts.
Although there are some bright spots, including the redevolpment of Bay Street, Hemming Park and the sports complex district, Downtown supporters have turned pessimistic. Even with some areas of growth, true Downtown redevelopment won’t get off the ground until there’s more residential development, they say – and with no residential development projects in the works, there’s little indication things will turn around soon.
Until there’s more residential, the Northbank is a hard sell for commercial clients, said Carrie Smith, regional managing partner of Franklin Street.
“The Northbank is far behind because they’ve had so many stops and gos,” Smith said. “From a demographic standpoint, any retailer has had a hard time buying into that.”
Smith said she sees established retailers looking to open second locations on the Northbank, but still, the area is lagging behind its neighboring areas.
“It’s easier for us as brokers to sell tenants on San Marco, Riverside and Brooklyn because there is that residential component,” Smith said. “That’s why you see national and regional tenants gravitate there.”
Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace said Brooklyn is gaining traction, but the urban core itself needs to see more development of housing.
“We need as much residential as we can possibly get,” Wallace said. “We are getting a residential population in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is a part of Downtown, but we need more residential in the urban core itself so we can see growth.”
Oliver Barakat, past chairman of the DIA and a longtime Downtown advocate, said residential development is necessary – but, he points out, major projects that could lead to more momentum won’t be a priority for the city until Mayor Lenny Curry’s pension reform proposals become a reality.
“We’re a little bit hamstrung until we get through pension,” Barakat said. “I would hope, in the future, the administration has Downtown on their priority list.”
At a Downtown Investment Authority meeting in December, Curry’s administration made it clear where redevelopment stood on that priority list.
Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa said pension was the administration’s full focus until the referendum, leaving Downtown revitalization on hold.
Curry echoed that in a phone conversation with the Business Journal, saying pension had to be solved before anything happens with Downtown.
“Any issue that we’re talking about – infrastructure, Downtown – our budget is being eaten up by pension costs,” Curry said. “It’s a really bleak future without solving this pension issue. That’s why I’ve put everything into it.”
As well as choking off city investment, the pension issue scares away private dollars, too, he said.
“There’s uncertainty, fiscal uncertainty,” Curry said. “That’s unattractive to private dollars.”
Curry said the administration wants to start redevelopment efforts on several projects, including Berkman Plaza, The Landing and The Shipyards, saying there needed to be a complete renovation of The Landing and an overhaul of Berkman Plaza.
Population density, in addition, is something Curry wants to focus on in the future through measures like attracting more residential development in the urban core.
“It’s clear to me that people living in Downtown will feed everything else, businesses and many other things that need to happen in Downtown,” Curry said.
Curry also cited the Laura Street Trio as an “important” project. Developer Steve Atkins, who has seen numerous funding efforts fall through, has requested $8 million from the city.
“It’s a deal I’d like to see get done – it’s got to make financial sense. We have had conversations with him and we’ll continue those conversations after Aug. 30” — the date of the referendum, Curry said.
Of course, that assumes the referendum passes. But what, the mayor was asked, happens if it doesn’t?
“The referendum is going to pass,” he said.
While larger projects remain stalled in the pipeline, the efforts of smaller businesses have also hit challenges.
Despite rising optimism last year concerning The Elbow’s redevelopment, enthusiasm has dimmed with the closure of two cornerstones on Adams and Ocean Streets — Burro Bar and Chomp Chomp — and the fading of Downtown nightspot Underbelly.
Ian Ranne, who worked at Burro when it was London Bridge and reopened it as Burro Bar five years ago, said his concept of a “neighborhood bar” has never made much money due to the lack of residential base.
“There needs to be a lot more [11 East Forsyth] and Carlings,” Ranne said. “There’s only about 1,000 people living here and of those, maybe 100 will come to the bar.”
Meanwhile, rents continue to rise – which are in the low-to-mid teens per square foot, according to Franklin Street – pushing would-be tenants, like Chomp Chomp, which had wanted to take over Burro Bar’s space, out.
“We love being Downtown, but I’m a blue collar restaurant owner,” said Ian Chase, co-owner of Chomp Chomp. “I need to make a business decision to keep my employees working.”
The elimination of Burro Bar, Chomp Chomp and Underbelly from the mix means the majority of late night businesses will be concentrated on a segment of The Elbow: Bay Street, with eight bars and restaurants in three blocks.
Meanwhile, some business owners, like Jack Twachtman, also a partner in Burro Bar, are moving businesses or starting new businesses in areas seen as a safer bet, like Five Points, King Street, Avondale or San Marco.
“The Elbow isn’t dead -– but it’s in a coma,” Twachtman said.
The rising rents could force more tenants out and prohibit new businesses from venturing into the urban core. Though the ability to charge more is a positive indicator of Downtown’s growth, it’s also one of the thorns in its side, Wallace said.
“It’s certainly unfortunate to lose Burro Bar and Chomp Chomp, but we also look at it in terms of price per square foot demand, which is increasing in Downtown,” Wallace said.
Wallace said that, while that is a good sign, it also could cause some shakeups for the tenants who have been in Downtown the longest.
That’s evident with La Cena Ristorante, the longtime Downtown fixture that recently announced it would be moving its operation to Murray Hill.
Jerry Moran, who opened his restaurant at its Adams Street location 15 years ago, said the efforts and special events being held to bring more young people into Downtown has actually hurt his business.
“These festivals help other businesses, like Burrito Gallery. Hemming Park is soaking up a lot of casual festival business and helping some of the other little bars,” Moran said. “I thought maybe it’s time to move on.”
While Moran moved on because of the shifting dynamic, smaller businesses are finding it difficult to keep up with increased costs.
“It brings challenges for the existing tenants that have been the pioneers and mainstays for some time in the entertainment area,” Wallace said. “What that price per square foot is going to bring about is change.”
Wallace said the DIA wants to curb that loss through trying to work with tenants who may be struggling with rents that are climbing. Although Wallace said no businesses have approached them yet, he said it’s the DIA’s intention to reach out to businesses who may be at risk.
“You have to embrace the change while seeing if you can maintain certain businesses that have been the mainstays and see how you can help them,” Wallace said.
Barakat said he anticipates Burro Bar’s space at 100 E. Adams St. will fill up fast.
“It’s always pretty well occupied – I think it will get re-leased,” Barakat said. “If Chomp Chomp was able to make a deal, they would have expanded in Downtown. They weren’t leaving because of demand.”
While the Elbow launched its rebranding, another area of Downtown was also building its profile.
Hemming Park, which was taken over by nonprofit Friends of Hemming Park in late 2014, has been renovating the park and adding programming.
This year, the park plans to add a Black Sheep kiosk, which is scheduled to open in summer, and, hopefully, start work on a permanent stage – if the park’s funding situation stabilizes.
“It’s an inspiring vision, but it is going to take money. Other parks of our size have received tens of millions of dollars,” said Vince Cavin, CEO of the Friends of Hemming Park. “We want to make it the kind of park that’s modern, capitalize on trends, and that’s what we put forth to the city.”
The park was recently granted $100,000 to get it through the summer, after the Friends’ request for $250,000 received pushback from the City Council
Besides funding, the park also faces other barriers. The lack of residential base is also a problem for the park, Cavin says, especially going into the afternoon and evening hours.
He’s seen projects like the Laura Street Trio fail to get traction, and other projects like The Landing come to a standstill.
“Until we take bold and courageous moves to activate those spaces, we’re going to keep on struggling to engage,” Cavin said. “There’s just not enough people who are living here and active as part of the permanent fabric.”
The Landing is, meanwhile, in limbo until a lawsuit concerning an adjacent parcel of land is settled.
“When the Landing is activated, that’s another bookend to the arts and culture corridor that’s starting to form on Laura Street,” Cavin said. “Until The Landing is activated, we’ll miss huge opportunity to start to create a lot of vibrancy.”
Developer Toney Sleiman says he’s doing what he can to attract new tenants to The Landing, but that it’s, ultimately, on the city to create change.
Sleiman said the city should consider removing one-way streets, building a convention center and improving parking visibility, among other things.
Meanwhile, he said, The Landing is focusing on events and increasing what tenants they can.
“We are actively leasing space at the Jacksonville Landing and attracting new tenants and energy for Downtown,” Sleiman said.
As redevelopment of projects like The Landing and the Laura Street Trio have stalled, established brands have begun moving into Downtown, from Bold Bean opening at EverBank Center to Bold City opening a second taproom.
Most of that development has been focused on Bay Street, where Forking Amazing Restaurants — the same restaurant group behind Bistro Aix, Ovinté and Il Desco — has been redeveloping the Bostwick Building into the Cowford Chophouse.
Alex Klempf, director of operations for the restaurant group, said she sees Bay Street as the next hub in the urban core.
“I think Bay Street is going to be the next street that people go to, that people walk to,” Klempf said. “It seems very reasonable for someone to start their day out Downtown eating at Cowford or having a beer at Bold City before going to a Jaguars game.”
Bold City, which will be next door to the Chophouse, also represents a major win for Downtown. Brian and Susan Miller, the mother-and-son team that opened Bold City in 2008, had wanted to open in Downtown before finding their Riverside location, but they found it unfeasible at the time.
“We want to be a part of the revitalization of Downtown. There hasn’t been enough done with it,” Brian Miller said.
Miller said it won’t be the silver bullet in Downtown, but a brand with name recognition like Bold City can attract foot traffic.
“We’re not going to save Downtown by ourselves,” Kevin Miller, a customer service representative with Bold City, said, “[but] our customer base will come to see us.”
Brian Miller said Bold City coming to Downtown could also open the door to more growth.
“This will give people the confidence to put their own mark on it,” Miller said. “We want to help this area grow.”
Miller said it won’t happen overnight, but that meaningful change has happened in other locations, like King Street, before.
“King Street started with Kickbacks,” Kevin Miller said. “In time, people wanted to visit every bar. We want the same thing to happen here.”
For most businesses operating in Downtown, it’s clear that gradual change is the goal.
Although redevelopment of sections of Downtown, like The Elbow, have winded down, 1904 Music Hall and Spliff’s Gastropub partner Jason Hunnicutt said he’s hopeful about change, even as some businesses shutter, even as some projects fail to get off the ground.
“I think having a more dense Downtown, with one business next to another next to another, is key. I hope, in another five, 10 years something happens with Lavilla,” Hunnicutt said. “I think what we need is more. What’s going to change things as far as the district goes is bars and restaurants.”
Franklin Street’s Carrie Smith says she does see retail interest in the Northbank area for the first time in her 10-year career, which she describes as encouraging.
Regardless of development with The Shipyards, regardless of what happens with projects like the Laura Street Trio, it will come back to what can happen with residential growth, Smith said: “What we’re seeing with synergy Downtown between various restaurants and businesses – you can’t continue along that path when there isn’t a residential component.”