November 25, 2020
In The Public Interest
development rendering
Lot J Rendering

Here’s What…

Robert Arleigh White questions rush to judgment by City Council to subsidize Lot J development.

I Am Wondering.

I am wondering about Lot J. More particularly, I am wondering…what’s the rush?

On its face “The Project,” as it is referred to by the local NFL football team, is a mixed-use development on the footprint of parking Lot J adjacent to the stadium. And it is something!

In a Town Hall presentation hosted by City Council Members Matt Carlucci (Finance Committee Chair) and Randy DeFoor (Finance Committee Vice Chair), Jacksonville Jaguars President Mark Lamping transforms a basic parking lot into the dazzling epicenter of culture, business and tourism for Northeast Florida (link to meeting here: https://jaxcityc.granicus.com/player/clip/2576?view_id=1&redirect=true; presentation begins at 5:30). In his presentation, Lot J is envisioned as the catalyst that will spur development! It will “create the undisputed and premiere entertainment hub in Northeast Florida for music, nightlife and sports!” It will boast “first-class amenities and experiences” by featuring a boutique hotel, high-end retail and dining, and residential buildings as well as a brand new downtown business center “for the locals.”  

And that’s just Phase 1!

The Project is being put forward by Shad Khan and the Jaguars, the Cordish Companies, and Jacksonville’s Mayor’s Office. Phase 1 is projected to cost $433 million, and, although Mr. Lamping describes a $152.7 million total investment by the City, $233 million is imagined to come from the tax-payers.

For the record, $233 million will be the largest single public tax-payer subsidy to a private developer in the history of Jacksonville. Also, in case you were wondering, the City does not have that money; it will have to borrow it. 

In fact, there are two ordinances that are projected to come up for City Council approval as soon as next week Thursday, November 19. (NOTE: The City Council meeting scheduled for November 10 was cancelled due to a COVID-19 infection on the Council, and it is not clear how this will affect the scheduled review of the Lot J legislation): 

The first ordinance (https://jaxcityc.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4675362&GUID=4E5AE297-2D76-4510-B8AF-15597C80425E&Options=ID|Text|&Search=2020-0648) authorizes the City to accumulate $208,300,000 in fixed rate debt. 

The second ordinance (https://jaxcityc.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4663686&GUID=8B4F0AE3-3B6B-4837-B763-B593AE40B1DC&Options=ID|Text|&Search=2020-625) authorizes the City to borrow an additional $41,500,000.

If you have your calculator handy, you’re already aware of a trend: $152.7 million becomes $233 million which then, through these ordinances, adds up to $249.8 million and so on. I wonder about that. That’s almost $100 million more than Mr. Lamping put forward in his presentation as the City’s total investment. Further, Mr. Lamping clearly states that all cost overruns will be absorbed by the developer, about whom one of the citizen commenters at the Town Hall stated, “I don’t understand why this money should go to billionaires.” I wonder about that, too.

And this makes me wonder also about the City’s return on investment. 

A Times-Union editorial notes that the City Council Auditor’s report on The Project veers sharply from the Mayor’s ROI projections (https://www.jacksonville.com/story/opinion/editorials/2020/11/09/editorial-hard-look-lot-j-deal-make-sure-taxpayers-protected/6218583002/). Using numbers that come from the developer, the Mayor projects an ROI of $1 to $1.69, while the Council Auditor says that number is closer to $.44 on the dollar.

Also

–As they exist now, the terms of the agreement imagine that the City will own much of the property which means it stands to lose about $22 million in tax revenue over 20 years.

–The City would own and operate the parking garages for the residential units, but the developer would retain the parking revenue. Why? Do other cities own and maintain residential parking garages, but give the revenue to some third party?

–Even though the City is projected to invest $50 million in the entertainment district, it would receive no revenues from it. This is also at odds with Mr. Lamping’s presentation.

But wait! There’s more!

What about resilience? The property is essentially a peninsula that juts into a bend of the St. Johns River. In his presentation, Mr, Lamping states that The Project will be “designed and built to not only meet current sustainability standards but to levels engineering experts predict for the future. Topics such as flooding, storm surges and rising sea levels will be addressed.” I wonder…how? What does that mean? When will we know? It seems to me that the river has spoken.

This makes me wonder about the Shipyards Property and more specifically about Metropolitan Park. In a public meeting with Executive Assistant to the Mayor, Brian Hughes, CM Carlucci called Metro Park “sacred ground.” This is in part due to the City’s promise, during Jake Godbold’s administration, that Metro Park shall be a gathering space on the banks of the St. Johns River for the public in perpetuity. More recently, we have seen how Metro Park factors as an essential sustainability tool for downtown. Even though legislation to acquire the Park for private development by Mr. Khan and Iguana Investments has been withdrawn, it clearly remains a critical point of focus for the “catalyst for development” that The Project also promises.

As has been written here and elsewhere, there is a committed body of six community groups organized under the umbrella of Riverfront Parks Now! that envision a holistic park system on the banks of the river. Their vision not only preserves and expands the public’s access to the riverfront but also helps address the threats to resiliency that exist along its banks. 

I wonder if this is a part of what we will lose when we are asked to subsidize Phase 2 of The Project.

I am not a developer or a city planner, so, in fairness, I do wonder if Phase 1 isn’t, at the end of the day, a good idea. For now, I am sure that no one knows if it is or isn’t. I know we are not going to be much smarter on these points by the time of the November 19 City Council meeting when the tax-payer commitment is scheduled to be voted on and approved. What’s the rush?

If we are going to slow down and be thoughtful about this — the largest taxpayer subsidy to a private developer in our history — City Council needs to hear now from taxpayers who will be footing this bill. Council Members Carlucci and DeFoor have done a good job of creating opportunities for public engagement, but we need more transparency from our City in general.

The best way to convey your thoughts is by contacting your City Council representative. We recommend calling, but emails work, too. You can make your thoughts known by using this contact list.

https://www.coj.net/city-council.aspx

One more thought.

I wonder why the football team is making this investment. Speculation about where the team will be in five or ten years notwithstanding, Mr. Lamping acceded in the Town Hall presentation of The Project that “the most important consideration” for the Jaguars is “fielding a team that the people of Jacksonville and all of Jacksonville can be proud to support. We have not delivered the performance and results that we envision or that our fans deserve.”

Wouldn’t we all be more well served if that got more of the team’s attention? I wonder about that, too. 

Written by
Robert Arleigh White

Robert Arleigh White has many years of experience managing nonprofit arts organizations in North Florida where he has also been active in promoting a host of arts related initiatives. In recognition of over 20 years of successful legislative and community advocacy, the City of Jacksonville proclaimed August 12 as “Robert Arleigh White Day,” and Jacksonville’s City Council similarly authorized a resolution in his honor. Previously, Mr. White served as the executive and artistic director for Theatre Jacksonville where he led the organization from near fiscal insolvency to become one of the State of Florida’s most successful artistic venues. While there, he also was directly responsible for the artistic direction of fifty plays and worked to produce dozens more. Currently, Bob is the principal for Robert Arleigh White + Associates where he consults with nonprofits on development, infrastructure and organizational storytelling.

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5 comments
  • I wonder why all that money isn’t spent on improving all of Duval County. What about resilience for the rest of the citizens? Proper drainage? Support in food deserts? Infrastructure? Transportation? I mean do we need a new entertainment district to get the fans to support our investment already in the stadium?

    • Thanks Laurel. I would also note that Jacksonville has remarkable entertainment venues that it already doesn’t take care of. Why would we take on another one that we know we cannot afford? Just wondering…

  • Robert Arleigh White, thank you for the information and questions in your November 11, 2020 article in JaxLookout. Lot J is only one piece on a chessboard masterfully strategized by a man capable of turning himself into a billionaire. What is the next challenge for someone so successful? It would seem that he wants to have a big piece of his own city, and he is going about it in a carefully orchestrated manner. Consider what has been done so far. There are the lucrative stadium deals. Then, who paid for the Hart Bridge ramp to come down, clearing the sight line to more land grabs to the benefit of Shad? Metropolitan Park has been allowed to fall into disrepair, making it easier to argue that it needs to be handed over a redeveloper. It is not helpful that the mayor who should be working on behalf of the citizens has become an automatic ‘yes’ to whatever Mr. Khan pitches on his jet or yacht. Thankfully, there is hope for some balance in the analysis. As you point out, the projections are a dream built on wishful thinking and balanced on rickety projections. What’s the rush, indeed.

  • Bob, You are always thoughtful and reasoned in your comments and this is no exception. Thank goodness someone is paying attention and brings these “pork” projects to the attention of the public. This sounds like a no-good dirty deal as it is currently presented and Laurel Wilson makes an excellent point along with your carefully researched details, what about the rest of Duval? This just smacks of a hurried project to benefit too few for WAY TOO MUCH MONEY!!! The ROI here doesn’t make fiscal sense nor any moral or ethical sense either. In these hard times, we need more practical, equitable and reasonable uses of taxpayer money that we are all working so hard to get and use properly. Who is watching over the hen house besides you? Will the council be easily bullied into making this decision by big bucks influencers? Please say no.

Written by Robert Arleigh White

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