Five Years at 35 Feet
It was five years ago that an organization called “Beaches Watch” formed to, among other things, place a referendum on the Jacksonville Beach ballot to cap the heights of new buildings to 35 feet … about three stories.
At the time, it was a major issue. Developers who had spent millions of dollars on oceanfront lots hoping to build high-rise condos campaigned hard against the proposed cap, while racing to city hall to get building permits approved so that they could be grandfathered in just in case the referendum passed.
The debate was at the height of the condo building boom in Florida. Just about everything that could be built or converted into a condo was being built or converted. My wife had a very lucrative job selling condos both here and for a time in Fort Lauderdale, and the stories she told were breathtaking. Buyers were clamoring for appointments to buy in the face of an approaching tropical storm, such was the frenzy to get SOMETHING. With prices sometimes rising literally by the hour, buyers were three and four deep for every available unit.
It was kind of the mentality for the builders, too. There was no way to lose money on an oceanfront condo, right? Everything was just going to keep going on forever.
But it was the economy that did more to keep a wall of high-rise condos from blocking the beach than the referendum, because frankly, a when you’re about 6 feet tall, a 35 foot building is just as difficult to see over than a 100 foot high building.
The campaign for the height restriction was emotional. Even when I came to the First Coast in 2000, it was not difficult to notice that we have far more access to the ocean than many places along the coast. Daytona is blocked, for all practical intents and purposes, by the condos and hotels along the oceanfront. Titusville is all space center, and Cocoa Beach is again, many condos, timeshares, and hotels. The further south you go, the more built-up the oceanfront becomes. If it’s not sprawling compounds for the very few, it’s high-rises that seem to be largely unoccupied most of the time. Jacksonville Beach was a latecomer to that part of the Florida Beach lifestyle, and apparently a majority of residents wanted to keep it that way.
But it did put those who bought some of that property during the frenzy in a squeeze. Could they build enough units with a 35 foot cap to recoup their investment on the property. Some, with permits issued before the cap went into effect started building, and the number of 8 and 10 story condo building today is orders of magnitude ahead of where it was just 9 years ago.
And a large percentage of them are still vacant. You can drive up and down 1st Street at night and see lights on in just a small percentage of those new condos, and large, vacant lots where once-thriving businesses once stood.
I don’t know if there is any grand lesson to be learned from boom times. I think most people involved, at least the professionals, knew it wouldn’t last. Some were just better at timing it than others. Back during the boom, I was invited to a holiday party with my wife, and the sales manager for whom she worked, of Cuban descent, seemed to be very prescient. It had to have been in 2004 when he was telling the salespeople who were watching somewhat in awe as buyers gobbled up condos like locusts in a field “This year, many jobs. Next year, many jobs. Two years … no jobs.”
At the time, it seemed difficult to believe. And yet here we are.
There will come a time when the 35 foot height cap in Jacksonville Beach will again be a consideration. Oceanfront property won’t languish forever. While some projects were built, some who rushed to pull permits have lost their investments for failure to improve the properties. Some manage to move just enough sand around to keep the permits in force, and we may still see some high rises spring up from the beach. Still, it’s unlikely the construction crane will again be the official city bird of Jacksonville Beach again anytime soon, and the economy has been just as effective at stopping the beach building boom as the height cap.
At least for now.