What Now for The Shipyards?
Earlier this month, the city began foreclosure proceedings against the developer that was selected to complete The Shipyards … once hailed by former Mayor John Delaney as the centerpiece of what he called “The Billion Dollar Mile”. Mayor Peyton’s announcement that downtown will be the focus of his final two years in office started me thinking about where we’ve been, and what lessons have been learned.
It was not long after I arrived in Jacksonville that Mayor Delaney … fresh from his success on The Better Jacksonville Plan … announced the riverfront development project. The condo boom was in full swing, and a lot projects were begun to great fanfare. Some have been completed, and even expanded, such as Berkman Plaza and Berkman 2, though the difficulties getting the second tower of that project to completion have been well documented. High rise condos on the Southbank have changed the Jacksonville skyline, though one has been leased as apartments rather than the upscale condos that the developer imagined.
But The Shipyards was supposed to be something special. Several notable Jacksonville residents put down deposits on the luxury units with a river view in walking distance to the stadium. They were to soar hundreds of feet above the river, and contain retail and office space, a marina, and upscale residential units. Bay Street would have been transformed from a mostly industrial area east of Maxwell House to an opulent neighborhood and playground for the well-to-do.
It was not to be.
The original developer, Tri-Legacy group, so misused the economic development funds granted by the city that it sparked a grand jury investigation. No criminal charges were filed, but 10s of millions of dollars just evaporated, with little to show for the effort but some rusting rebar sticking out of the ground. LandMar came in to rescue the project, put a sales trailer on the property, hired realtors, and started on revetments and bulkheads along the river. They were required to show improvements in the property, and they did just enough make it look like the project was moving forward.
LandMar, though, was having its own difficulties. Like so many upscale developers, they overextended trying to meet demand that was rapidly drying up, not just at the Shipyards but at other sites around the area as well. Now, the Georgia Paper Mill site in Kingsland is moldering, and The Shipyards is in default for failure to pay property taxes.
So, there is no way to know what will eventually become of “The Billion Dollar Mile”. Two developers have now failed to make anything happen, more than a few investors have likely lost deposits on condos that won’t go vertical for years, or decades, if ever.
It seems The Shipyards could be viewed as a cautionary tale on a lot of levels. It started with such promise, as such things do. With fanfare and ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, artists renderings and pre-sales. For the city, too, the enormous amount of economic development money that simply vanished can never be recovered, but it did lead to new procedures for how such funds are allocated.
For now, The Shipyards are in limbo, perhaps permanently. While they would have been a opulent addition to the downtown skyline, their tale is one that is perhaps reflective of the local, state, and national economies. The plans were made when there seemed to be no limit to how far the economy could rise, and the difficulties now are a parable to illustrate just how far some of the mighty have fallen.