The 2011 groundbreaking for Vilano’s Publix was an especially joyous event for the 5,000 residents living east of the Intercostal. No longer would the need for a few groceries require a trip to the mainland. The Publix was also celebrated as the start of a planned commercial center of shops, sidewalk cafes, upper-level residences and hotels, to be called Vilano Town Center. This concept was (and still is) a highly creative redevelopment idea, first championed by the North Shores Improvement Association. And, given the traffic jams impeding access into St. Augustine, Vilano needs its own business district now more than ever.
Sadly, the town center’s development seems to have stalled at the edge of the Publix parking lot. Expanses of vacant land along Vilano Road, some of it with high weeds, continue to wait for the next phases of the town center to happen. So do the 160 on-street parking spaces.
The wait has been especially painful for local taxpayers. St. Johns County is a huge investor in the town center’s development, a project initiated under Florida’s Community Redevelopment Act. In 2004 the county issued $12.7 million in tax-increment revenue bonds to create the streets, sidewalks, fountains, landscaping and storm sewers intended to jump-start private development along Vilano Road. These bonds were backed by the county’s full faith and credit, with the expectation that the new taxes generated from the town center’s development (the tax increment) would pay off the bonds.
The wait for development along Vilano Road has also been challenging for Vilano Main Street, Inc., the non-profit entity created to promote the town center’s development through events and advocacy. Vilano Main Street’s leaders continue to make commendable efforts to apply the principles of the National Main Street Program into an area still desperately seeking a critical mass of businesses and activity.
Real estate development has always been prone to cycles, and the timing for Vilano’s town center redevelopment could not have been worse: Completion of the $12.7 million in public infrastructure coincided with the 2008 crisis in the financial markets. For several years real estate development was halted nearly everywhere. It took an additional three years and a radically reduced design just to get the Vilano Publix underway.
Since 2008 the county has had no choice but to dip into its general fund to service the tax-increment bonds. In addition, the county also maintains the streetscape at an annual cost of nearly $40,000. The county’s latest projections show a net general fund outlay of $10.3 million by the time the bonds are paid off in 2033.
Real estate development sprang back strongly several years ago. New hotels and neighborhood centers have been built elsewhere in the county. It is, therefore, puzzling why this real estate revival has yet to be seen along Vilano Road.
If the private parties who control key parcels of land along Vilano Road are unable or unwilling to participate in this public-private redevelopment, there is a serious flaw in the redevelopment strategy. According to Carol Westmoreland, Executive Director of the Florida Redevelopment Association, it is “extremely rare” for tax-increment bonds to be solely guaranteed by the local government. Tax-increment bonds are typically backed by agreements with credit-worthy private developers before a redevelopment project commences. In other cases the redevelopment land itself is publicly acquired and competitively resold to qualified developers, but this is done with reverter clauses in case they fail to get developments underway within a reasonable amount of time. Under these scenarios the pubic risk is shared with the private sector.
There is now a glimmer of hope that private development along Vilano Road will soon resume. A 221-room hotel has been announced for a vacant site across from Publix, immediately west of the Hampton Inn. The developer is hopeful that discussions with Hyatt Hotels for a Hyatt Place franchise will allow a construction start later this year. While several hotels previously announced for this site have failed to materialize, this project has an unusual financial boost: The developer has secured a $9 million federal loan guarantee from USDA’s Rural Development Program.
Given the sizable public investment In the town center concept, it is especially important that all new private development be required to adhere to the master plan. Anxieties to see new construction activity must not cause a compromise of the mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented plan for a true town center that will serve Vilano’s resident population and boost the county’s economy. A string of limited-service hotels does not make a town center. But hotels can bring activity to support it.
Robert Olson is a retired architect, urban planner, and former senior official of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He resides on Vilano Beach.