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Councilman Carlucci: Jacksonville residents have 'lost faith' in Lot J deal

The proposed development agreement would have the city spend up to $233 million in investments and incentives on a project next to TIAA Bank Field.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — City Councilman Matt Carlucci said Tuesday that Jacksonville residents have "lost faith" in the proposed Lot J development deal and in order to save the project, the Downtown Investment Authority should take over as the new negotiating team on the deal that was hammered out by Mayor Lenny Curry's administration.

Carlucci also wants an independent market analysis into whether the proposed development can have lasting success and how it fits into the broader picture of downtown.

While Carlucci delivered some stinging comments about the negotiations done by Curry's staff during a meeting Tuesday, a separate meeting of City Council members at City Hall brought up a number of questions about aspects of the deal but no council member voiced outright opposition to the larger framework.

"Where I'm at is I'm ready to move forward," said City Council member Reggie Gaffney, who convened the meeting. "I hope my colleagues are ready to move forward."

The proposed development agreement would have the city spend up to $233 million in investments and incentives on a project next to TIAA Bank Field that would have mid-rise residential buildings with 400 apartments, a hotel with 150 to 250 rooms, about 40,000 square feet of office space, 75,000 square feet of street-level retail, and more than 100,000 square feet for a Live! entertainment center.

The total development cost would be an estimated $450 million to $482 million, depending on what the expense is for infrastructure including parking facilities. It would be one of the largest taxpayer commitments to a development deal in city history and is far higher than other downtown projects.

Curry asked the Downtown Investment Authority last week to review the proposed deal he struck with the development team of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan and The Cordish Companies. Curry brought in DIA for a review after City Council member LeAnna Cumber said she wanted the agency's assessment.

Carlucci said Tuesday at a meeting with Cumber at City Hall that he wants the DIA to go further so the city can regain "the trust of our citizens and civic leaders in this whole process."

He said members of Curry's administration were connected to the negotiations last year that attempted to sell JEA and it "would be well for them to step aside."

"They're not negotiators," Carlucci said after the meeting. "They have great skill-sets in other areas but this is not one, and after seeing what happened last year and bringing that over to this year, I think that leads to a lack of confidence as I hear it from the community."

Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes, who was a lead negotiator on the Lot J deal, was not on the negotiation committee for the JEA deal. Curry did support JEA seeking offers from private buyers for the utility but eventually called on JEA to kill the process in December after saying the public had lost faith in it.

While Carlucci said the Lot J deal is at a similar point, the questions posed by council members at the separate meeting convened by Gaffney did not have the same sharp edges as the criticism that council members lodged a year ago about the JEA sales attempt.

Hughes, who previously served a stint as interim CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, told the council that the Curry administration negotiated the deal to "get our taxpayers the most value for every penny they put in."

When council members asked how the proposed deal compares to deals that other cities have done with The Cordish Companies, which is a national real estate developer specializing in urban projects, Hughes said Jacksonville didn't try to copy any other city's deal "because every city is different."

"It's wholly consistent with what this development group has done in other cities, using our local menu of options in what we think is the most prudent way that maximizes the effectiveness of our dollars," Hughes said.

The Jaguars and The Cordish Companies answered questions during the Gaffney-lead meeting that was attended by 14 council members. The council previously met in two meetings lead by Council President Tommy Hazouri. He was not at the meeting called by Gaffney and council member Aaron Bowman.

Cumber said during her earlier meeting with Carlucci that if the city were to bring in the DIA as a new negotiating team, the impact would be to scrap the negotiations done up this point and start all over. She said she doesn't support that approach and added it would send a message to other prospective developers that they cannot have confidence in entering into negotiations with the city.

DIA Chief Executive Officer Lori Boyer said if the city wants a market analysis of the Lot J project's viability, it would take three to four weeks to bring outside experts on board to do that and they would need four to six weeks to finish a study, so it would be a total of up two and half months.

The Jacksonville Civic Council, a group of business and civic leaders, gave its support to the deal earlier this month but one of the conditions of that backing was for the city to conduct an independent market analysis and have the DIA oversee the project throughout the term of the agreement.

Cordish Companies Chief Operating Officer Zed Smith told the council that Cordish has shown repeatedly in other cities that its projects measured up to expectations and resulted in continued development beyond the first phase.

"We've done this multiple times with multiple cities across the country," he said. "I think when you look at our track record, it really does speak for itself."

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