JACKSONVILLE, Fla — With some important details still unsettled, a plan to replace Jacksonville’s Morocco Shrine Center auditorium with more than 1,000 apartments and businesses took a step forward this week.
A City Council vote Tuesday night cleared sending a new land-use plan for the 37-acre Southside site to nine state agencies for their review.
A second council vote and a rezoning are still needed to redevelop the landmark meeting hall and event venue at 3800 St. Johns Bluff Road S.
“This is the beginning of a long journey for projects like these,” council member Michael Boylan, who chairs the group’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, said last week when his committee signed off on the plan.
The Morocco Temple Association Inc., the site’s nonprofit owner, had the 63,000-square-foot building up for sale more than a decade ago with no takers.
So when some investors asked a while back about buying it for “adaptive reuse,” there wasn’t a lot of debate.
“This isn’t a new idea. Most of the members realized we were going to have to do something,” said Bruce Ford, potentate for the Morocco Shriners, whose 132-year-old organization is the parent for Shriner temples around the Southeast.
Old-timers remember the temple having 10,000 members once, Ford said, but there are about 1,600 now and keeping the building in good condition is getting harder.
The building the Shriners left downtown for opened in the 1980s. Ford said upkeep of the roof and air conditioning system are ongoing reminders of the maintenance needs of the cavernous one-story building that countless thousands of locals have visited for events ranging from RV shows to boxing matches and political rallies.
“That building is really too much … to maintain,” Ford said.
The shrine center apparently won’t survive the redevelopment.
Although a report from city planners in February described the building as the central feature of a redevelopment that would include a food hall, work space and settings for health, art and entertainment, development attorney Cyndy Trimmer told the Boylan’s committee last week the buyers “have now figured out that won’t be possible.”
Keeping commercial development all in one central building "wasn't very efficient," said Jeffrey Klotz, CEO of Apartment Asset Advisors LLC, in Atlantic Beach, which has had the property under contract since last year.
Klotz said he wants the site to become an "experiential destination," a place where the mix of art, dining, entertainment, maybe student housing will create a cool vibe people want to be part of.
The site, between Beach Boulevard and Town Center Parkway, is near the back door of St. Johns Town Center, and Klotz said he sees it as a unique opportunity for a distinctive development. He said he'll be working with the KABR Group, a New Jersey-based private equity business, to make the most of the site.
"Details are still pretty vague," Klotz said of plans for the site.
Tuesday evening, the council approved an ordinance forwarding to the state a change in the city’s land-use plan to label the shrine center property “regional commercial” land. That designation requires a separate sheet, custom-designed for just to the land the ordinance describes, spelling out the kind and amount of development that would be allowed.
The requirement sheet for the shrine center property would allow 1,025 apartments and 115,000 square feet of commercial real estate. That would be enough housing for 2,408 people, said a report from city planners that recommended approval.
The city’s Transportation Planning Division said a traffic engineer should study the plan’s impact to surrounding streets.
The plan calls for the land to be rezoned as a Planned Use Development, a type of zoning that can allow detailed, customized rules for how a property is developed.
Council member Scott Wilson, whose district includes the shrine center, said Tuesday the council “will work through any concerns the community may have” before the final land-use and zoning votes are taken following the state’s review.
For now, Shriners will do what they’ve learned to do since January, when the land-use plan that would let them sell their property was filed with the city: They’ll wait.
Ford said his members have a committee that detailed the floor space, kitchen dimensions and other details they’d want in their next meeting hall and another that checks from time to time for potential properties.
But they haven’t chosen a new home yet because they can’t buy anything until they sell the shrine center, which won’t happen until the land use and zoning change.
“We’ve got to see this through to … conclusion before we can take the next step,” Ford said.
He wouldn’t talk about the sales price except to say it would be “market rate.”
The Duval County Property Appraiser’s Office assessed the property’s value this year at just under $8 million, about $350,000 less than last year because of a drop in the building’s value.