Editorial by Bill Delaney

Redeveloping River City Brewing Company

The proposed redevelopment of River City Brewing Company. Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.

On October 2, the Downtown Investment Authority announced that developer Related Group had put the River City Brewing Company under contract to buy and demolish for a new 335-unit apartment complex. The current River City Brewing Company building dates to 1982, when it was built for Harbormasters Restaurant in order to provide an amenity that would connect to Friendship Fountain Park and the Southbank Riverwalk. As part of the deal, the City of Jacksonville maintained ownership of the land. Since 1999, the building has been owned by Maritime Concepts, who signed a 99-year lease to operate River City Brewing Company there.

The deal involves Related Group taking ownership of River City Brewing Company and buying out the remaining 77 years on its lease. It would demolish the restaurant and build a 335-unit apartment building wrapping a parking garage. Related would also manage the marina and a shop for boaters, providing 20 slips for public use, although the city is likely to retain ownership of the marina.

The proposed redevelopment of River City Brewing Company. Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.

For its part, the city would transfer the land to Related Group free of charge (the property appraiser’s office values it at $4.9 million). The city would further offer rebates on 75% of the site’s property taxes for 20 years; The Florida Times-Union estimates this would add up to almost $13 million. The city would further spend $1.14 million to reconstruct the marina, damaged by Hurricane Irma three years ago, and another $1.6 million on the boat ramp area. In total, the taxpayer cost would be over $20 million, more than than a fifth of the total.

Needless to say, the deal has drawn concern over the fact that it removes River City Brewing Company without replacement. Since the city’s controversial shuttering and demolition of the Landing, River City Brewing is one of the very few waterfront eateries remaining in Downtown Jacksonville. The restaurant, like many others today, has seen better days, but nevertheless it has remained opened for 22 years (in fact, the site has been consistently in active use since the 1970s). Even with its current struggles, it’s still an amenity contributing to the clustering of the Southbank Riverwalk, the marina, Friendship Fountain Park, and the Museum of Science and History.

A mixed use solution

The site plan of the Related Group’s ICON Central luxury apartment development in Downtown St. Petersburg. Completed in 2019, the 15-story building contains 368 apartment units above 38,000 square feet of ground floor retail. Courtesy of the Related Group.

Considering the taxpayers will be footing so much of the bill, this concern is entirely reasonable. In many ways, it highlights the recurring problem of the city making Downtown deals without a strategic master plan in place. But regardless, for $20 million Jacksonville deserves a strong, positive development, and removing one of Downtown’s few riverfront dining spots just isn’t a net gain. Fortunately, there’s a solution that could make pretty much everyone happy: simply incorporating a restaurant into the new development.

It would be relatively straightforward to turn Related Group’s apartment building into a mixed use development featuring a new landmark restaurant on the river. A mixed use development would mitigate citizens’ concerns about losing another downtown restaurant space, while also opening up even more opportunities for the development to reap the benefits of connectivity with the river, park and MOSH.

West River, The Related Group’s latest development project in Tampa, features a seven-story building with 371 apartment units above 6,300 square feet of retail. Courtesy of the Related Group.

Some skinflint developers don’t like building mixed use developments, but the better ones are still putting them up across the city. Even VyStar’s new parking garage will have space for restaurants and retail. Obviously, a restaurant would work here on a site where one has already been operating for 22 years. Related Group is certainly comfortable with mixed-use developments as their portfolio includes a 15-story apartment tower in Downtown St. Petersburg and a 7-story midrise apartment building in Tampa, both featuring ground floor retail.

A win-win situation is within our grasp, and all it would take would be the Downtown Investment Authority insisting on a mixed use project before considering incentives. The DIA Strategic Implementation Committee will discuss the project at its hybrid in person/virtual meeting at 9 a.m. Friday, October 9. To participate, Jaxsons can join the Zoom meeting with Meeting ID 978-3841 7287, password: 611231. Alternatively, attend in person at the Ed Ball Building, or email Ina Mezini at Rmezini@coj.net and ask her to read your comments at the meeting.

Editorial by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.