What’s happening?

Back in 2019, the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) picked the Vestcor Companies to develop roughly three blocks of city-owned property in LaVilla between Lee, Adams, Stuart and Johnson Streets. Two other bids emerged, including JWB Real Estate Capital’s Johnson Commons (more on the details in a moment), but DIA chose Vestcor in large part because its rubric emphasized previous experience in developing Downtown projects, of which Vestcor had won several. According to the DIA, the company’s greater experience would give them the best chance of success.

The selection was problematic from the start as it tipped the scales toward a well connected developer already working in the area over a younger company with a better idea. A more serious problem emerged in March 2021 when, after several delays, it was publicly released that Vestcor was pulling out of the project. While this has opened the door for the better Johnson Commons proposal being selected after all, the situation set progress back two years. Hopefully, a critical look at what happened can help avoid similar problems in the future.

The background

The Lofts at Monroe is one of three income restricted rental properties by the Vestcor Companies completed in LaVilla since 2016.

On May 14, 2019, the Vestcor Companies made an unsolicited proposal to acquire roughly three blocks of city-owned property in LaVilla between Lee, Adams, Stuart and Johnson streets. The city had targeted these parcels for residential development, and the LaVilla Neighborhood Development Strategy identifies them as “Park Block Residential” as they abut Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, the homesite of brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson.

Vestcor proposed that the city donate these parcels to the company. In exchange, Vestcor would build a 70-unit townhouse development with units priced at $250,000, and also make a $100,000 donation for the improvement of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park. If the units sold for more than $250,000, the city would share the profits. This would have been Vestcor’s fourth major project in LaVilla since 2016: the Lofts at LaVilla opened December 2017; the Lofts at Monroe opened December 2018; and the Lofts at Jefferson Station opened in January 2020.

The DIA then issued a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking bids for the property with a deadline of June 17, 2019. The RFP was not widely advertised and the city apparently did not expect other bidders. However, on June 17, two more developers responded: Johnson Commons LLC and Blackwater Capital.

The Johnson Commons proposal was a joint venture between JWB Real Estate Capital LLC and Corner Lot Development LLC, spearheaded by JWB president Alex Sifakis and Corner Lot CEO Andy Allen. The Jaxson’s Ennis Davis advised the developers. In contrast to Vestcor’s bid, Johnson Commons would be mixed-use and the developers offered $100,000 for the property. Johnson Commons included 98 1,430 square foot townhomes priced at $250,250; on Davis’ recommendation, the townhomes’ architecture reflected the dense, urban shotgun houses that formerly existed in LaVilla. In addition to the townhomes, the project would also include a minimum of 9,500 feet of retail space and donate $150,000 for the park.

Next page: Selection process – a flawed foundation