JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Months of feuding between Mayor Lenny Curry and Jacksonville Landing owner Toney Sleiman appear to have ended suddenly with Wednesday's joint announcement of a settlement agreement that will allow the city's stakeholders to “consider new possibilities."
The settlement includes legislation that would squash any existing disputes between the city and Sleiman, pay off Sleiman and set aside funding for the demolition of the Landing, paving the way for redevelopment.
The Landing opened to great fanfare 32 years ago as downtown's showcase riverfront mall. The city owns the land on the Northbank of the St. Johns River, but it has leased the property to Jacksonville Landing Investments LLC, a subsidiary of Sleiman Enterprises Inc., for the last 15 years. That lease was to last through 2054.
Despite that longstanding relationship, the agreement hit a snag in late 2017 when the city accused Sleiman Enterprises of breaching its lease and Sleiman Enterprises fired back with a lawsuit claiming “contractual breaches” by the city.
Sleiman Enterprises said a letter from the city in October 2017 accused the company of failing to operate the Landing as a “high-quality, first-class retail facility.” The Sleiman Enterprises lawsuit put that blame on the city, saying the city hadn't held up its end and was making it impossible to run the Landing “as a first-class retail property.”
During the feud, Curry openly said that he wanted Sleiman out and wanted to tear the Landing down and start over, and last May, the city informed JLI it was terminating the lease, citing a breach of contract that wasn’t remedied within 30 days.
The city also rejected a $107,000 rent check from JLI as the dispute remained tied up in civil court.
But all that animosity was set aside Wednesday with the announcement that the two sides had reached a compromise “by which the Jacksonville Landing and the property at its location would see their best and highest use realized.”
“For years, Jacksonville Landing Investments and Sleiman Enterprises have contributed immeasurably to development and job creation in and around Jacksonville,” Curry said in the joint statement. “The Landing has been a fixture in the community much like the Sleiman organization, who stepped in at a time when the property’s future was in doubt upon the exit of the original developer. On behalf of the citizens of Jacksonville, I appreciate their willingness to work with me so that Jacksonville can consider an alternate path forward for the location of the Landing.”
The Landing's food court shut down in October and the riverfront mall suffered another loss when popular restaurant Cinco de Mayo closed its doors for good. Empty storefronts have become the norm at the property.
FROM THE VAULT: Jacksonville Landing opens June 25, 1987
“Mayor Curry is having success in Jacksonville and in downtown,” Toney Sleiman said on behalf of JLI. “The JLI team and the entire Sleiman organization want to see that success continue and we are ready to see this process come to a mutually agreed conclusion.”
City Council President Aaron Bowman told News4Jax the legislation that was filed as part of the settlement calls for $18 million regarding the Landing. According to Bowman, under the bill, $15 million would be used to settle litigation with JLI and Sleiman, which means the lawsuits will be dropped and the city of Jacksonville will get the property.
Bowman said $1.5 million would be used for subleased tenants to terminate them. He said he believes many tenants have already been notified and the city will help them get out of the leases, which will take several months. He said the remaining $1.5 million would be used for demolition, meaning the city has no intention of keeping the Landing as it currently is.
"This is what the mayor and JLI has come up with -- reasonable terms that they've agreed upon," Bowman said. "If approved by the council, it'll be executed and it'll be over. If the council doesn't like it or disapproves it, then it's going to go back to the drawing board.”
Bowman said the bill will be introduced on Tuesday and then there's a six-week cycle before it would come up for a vote.
"I think it’s a great thing," City Councilman Sam Newby said. "I think both parties win and, most of all, the city of Jacksonville wins.”
What about existing remaining Landing businesses?
Fionn MacCool’s Irish Pub has been open at the Landing nearly eight years and is one of a handful of restaurants still open at the mall. The agreement calls for the city to relocate existing businesses or terminate their leases.
"(It's) business as usual for now," Fionn MacCool's General Manager Paul Glaser said Thursday. "Who knows how long it’s going to take. The bulldozers aren’t sitting outside, so I’m not closing down today."
Mona Cobb owns the Elevate Your Style boutique still open at the Landing. She wishes the city did more for the small businesses that have felt the effects of an uncertain future.
"When the mayor announced that he was going to shut down this place, yes we did (suffer)," Cobb said. "But we are still thankful for the supporters that we have downtown."
Several ideas have been tossed around for the future of this downtown landmark, from a new mixed-use complex to a public park.
“It's got the performing arts center right next to it. It's on the water. So it’s a great place to hang out, so I hope there's some green space there," he said. "But it also gives us an opportunity for, if you go to a show at the theater, that you got some places to eat, some places to drink, places to relax.”
Juma Pryor, who works at New Jax Gym at the Landing, said despite the possibility of losing his job, he hopes the legislation will be approved.
“I think that there’s a lot of dense energy at the Landing, so I think demolishing would actually bring on some new energy and new light within the town," Pryor said. "Everyone has to move on to the next step to the higher best version of themselves, so if it's not here, then it's meant for me to not be here, as well.”
But not everyone is ready to see the Landing go.
"I don’t think it should be demolished. I think it needs the right shops in there, the right ownership maybe? I don’t know," resident Gaston Coello said.
“When you think of downtown Jacksonville, you think of the Landing," resident Rob Harriger said.
Until they hear otherwise, it's business as usual at Fionn McCool's.
"We have people to feed. We’ve got conventions in town. I’ve got a Broadway play happening," Glaser said.
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