Last week, the Jacksonville City Council voted 15-to-1 to end an era—that of The Jacksonville Landing. Demolition of the orange-roofed buildings (a perfect distillation of 1987) is imminent. Not a moment too soon, really.
Nearly five years ago, in this very space, I did what so many others have done: considered Jacksonville’s future without The Landing. At the time, landlord Toney Sleiman was seeking—but didn’t get—$11.8 million of city money for redevelopment. I didn’t see that as a bad investment then, because The Landing had fallen so far off. I recalled that when “The Jacksonville Landing was in its heyday, during the Reagan-Bush era, it was a genuine destination. It had stores you didn’t see in the other malls in Jacksonville, such as Sharper Image (with its then-state-of-the-art videophones) and Banana Republic. People from the ’burbs drove there from far-flung Mandarin, as well as Orange Park and the Regency area, to see the new and the now, the latest and greatest, the mall on the river.” I was among those people. My friends and I made our ways from the Southside, and did so until, well, the Avenues Mall and other venues stole The Landing’s thunder.
By the 21st century, The Landing was a sad pastiche of its former glory. It still looked like 1987, the architectural equivalent of Guess Jeans and baggy sweaters and teased hair. Without destination retail, the spot floundered. The last few mayoral administrations struggled with what to do. Peyton couldn’t have afforded a deal. Brown got kneecapped by the Council. Curry worked it out.
Toney Sleiman, of course, is the biggest beneficiary. The city will pay $18 million to clear his lease on property with a book value of roughly 30 percent of that sum.
The point of the acquisition, and all of these moves, is quite basic: The city is betting that empty space will signal more potential to developers than the buildings now there. Time and again, that’s the struggle with Downtown. It was built for a different time in many respects. The Shipyards were once viable. The old City Hall and Courthouse saw their share of action. But that action has long since ended.
The real issue here is timing. Curry may never have more political capital than he does right now. His administration rejects the “lame-duck” questions, but as we saw even on The Landing deal, Council members who aren’t part of his clique (Danny Becton) have no incentive to play ball. If Becton or Garrett Dennis or whoever wants to run for mayor in 2023, and knows that at some point the oppo will fly anyway, why not run opposition?
Timing is also key to making the redevelopment tranche play out. With recession on the horizon (if the inverted yield curve and other indicators matter), Jacksonville is vulnerable to a national trough. If liquidity dries up, if tourism ebbs, if corporations no longer are looking for the kinds of splashy M&A deals that have become part of the game, then it bodes poorly for the re-dev proposals.
Another issue worth mentioning: Ad valorem collections, which Curry’s administration has benefited from in its first term, will fall off a cliff once the housing market turns. Recovery takes a while. Even when the economy turned up toward the end of Alvin Brown’s term, the damage had been done. City cuts left shortfalls in public safety, infrastructure and every other area. Some of those shortfalls have yet to be resolved.
This is a much more time-sensitive era than people think. The bond-rating companies note Jacksonville’s “high fixed costs,” which are non-negotiable unless you do what was done in 2016 with pension and re-amortize the debt by way of restructuring the plans. That, like The Landing deal, came at a cost. Public employees got long awaited pay raises. And like The Landing deal, there were critics that the cops and firefighters were getting over on the city.
Petitions and public outcry won’t stop what’s happening right now. The thing that will stop it—a recession—is going to create issues so pressing, people will miss the hue and cry over tearing down a slummy mall on prime property.