Downtown passed a milestone recently when three strong bidders competed to gain the rights to build homes for sale in LaVilla.

We're not talking subsidized affordable housing. We're not talking about high-end rentals or condominiums. We're talking about building townhomes for the “missing middle” Downtown.

“For the first time we had a number of developers upping the ante on creativity,” said Oliver Barakat, a longtime Downtown Investment Authority board member.

Barakat said the Downtown Investment Authority used to be desperate when it came to recruiting developers to build Downtown, but not anymore.

Barakat said that in the future the Downtown Investment Authority could move toward evaluating bids not just for their return on investment, but also on how developers would enhance an area's local history, culture, etc.

In the end a Downtown Investment Authority board committee gave Vestcor's bid a narrow edge over a competing one by Johnson Commons; it appeared that Vestcor’s financial strength and its track record of producing results made it the safe bet.

The other two bidders, however, offered some important creative elements that are worth keeping in mind for the future.

Johnson Commons proposed a restaurant on its housing site — and the company offered to pay rent for five years while the restaurant became established in the LaVilla neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Blackwater Capital proposed an expansion of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, the home site of James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson.

While Blackwater didn't win the bid to expand the park, the good thing is the potential exists to do some great things at the site in the future — particularly since it is a city-run park.

And Blackwater's interest also proved that there is now widespread appreciation for the historical importance of the Johnson site: indeed Lloyd Washington of the Durkeeville Historical Society has proposed a unique version of a shotgun house that would pay tribute to the era.

Another sign of the growing interest: Vestcor has agreed to pay $100,000 to support Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park — and another $100,000 toward a LaVilla Heritage Trail.

Future bids

The Downtown Investment Authority is developing better criteria for future bidding competitions; the status quo has made little progress in reusing the many vacant lots and buildings in the Central Business District.

Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer said she persuaded the Mayor’s Budget Review Committee to transfer a portion of unused salary dollars — the Downtown Investment Authority has open positions — for a market feasibility study.

Once that study is in hand the Downtown Investment Authority will be in a better position to ask for bids on unused property.

Major building Downtown

The Downtown Investment Authority has also been working to clear the way for another Downtown office building worth $145 million; it would be a corporate headquarters near the St. Johns River in Brooklyn.

The new building would be located at a Florida Blue parking lot, and Florida Blue would get property on Forest Street for a new parking garage, which would be available to the public during nights and weekends.

Regarding the office building, the vast majority of city incentives will only be paid after substantial completion. For instance, the company must create at least 500 new jobs with an average annual salary of $85,000 as well as retain its existing 1,216 jobs in the city.

Under state law the company's name can remain undisclosed at this stage.

Lessons from Buffalo

Boyer participated in the JAX Chamber’s recent trip to Buffalo and came away raving about that city’s “wonderful streetscapes and sidewalks.”

Boyer said the Downtown Investment Authority had already planned to use tree fund dollars to spruce up Downtown, and the Buffalo trip further validated the wisdom of that plan.

Buffalo also seems to have done a good job of converting historic buildings to residential and mixed use, which is still a challenge for our city in some areas of Downtown.