Does the City of Fernandina Beach want riverfront development?

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Dick Goodsell
Dick Goodsell

Reporter-News Analyst

Dick Goodsell, the only current developer with plans to build in the Fernandina Beach Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), waxed philosophical during my recent telephone interview with him.  “I guess I was naïve,” he said.  “There was so much talk about wanting to beautify the Amelia River front.  I thought [the city] had enough money to do things.  I thought my high-end townhouse project would be an exciting project.  Now I’d have to say that I have pulled out of this project, at least temporarily.”

What is the Goodsell project?

In the early 1970’s, Dick Goodsell came to know Amelia Island when he became interested in developing the Union Carbide property at the south end of the island.  Although ultimately beat out by Charles Fraser, the developer of what was then the Amelia Island Plantation, Goodsell worked with Fraser until the 1980’s.  During that time, he fell in love with Fernandina Beach.  He went on to work on other projects, but he returned to Fernandina Beach in 2003 with an ambitious plan to build upscale townhouses with some retail on the N. Second Street parcel of land backing up to the railroad and bounded by the Palace Saloon property to the south and the Crab Trap Restaurant and Alachua Street to the north.

Goodsell - 2
Architectural Rendering September 2010

Starting in 2003, Goodsell began prep work for the project.  He brought on high-end architects and builders; conducted environmental studies and performed soil borings.  In 2008, he switched architects, recognizing that in his quest for quality he had let cost get away from him.  The revised plans, while still representing high end, high quality residential construction, featured townhouses that were more in line with local market conditions.  Despite slowdown in the real estate market over the past decade, Goodsell has never stopped working to bring this project to reality.

The project has been divided into two phases.  The first phase, already permitted by the city’s Historic District Council, calls for 5 townhouses to be built on N. 2nd Street.  Two of these units would contain retail space on the first floor; the other three would be completely residential.  The second phase, which has not yet been finalized, calls for 9 residential townhouses to be built behind these 5, fronting on the railroad and facing the riverfront.  Access to garages and parking places behind the units would be via a driveway off Alachua Street.

So how did the project become bogged down?

Goodsell - 1Goodsell has invested the last 10 years in developing plans, dealing with permits, talking with possible contractors and trying to market townhouses, which now look as though they might never be built, due to the city’s intransigence.  He characterized the problem facing both his project and CRA development in general as the city’s total lack of consistency in pursuing waterfront development goals, which seem to change with each election.  He suggests that if there is ever to be redevelopment of the waterfront area, two things are imperative:  strong city leadership and a strong developer.  Goodsell quickly added that it is not his desire to serve in the latter role.  He suggests that the city needs to look toward a major developer with a significant track record on projects of this type.

As examples of the problems confronting him and other would-be developers he cites the return of the unspent money borrowed under the Forward Fernandina plan to finance infrastructure improvements along Front Street and what appears to be an abandoning of the long-sought agreement with the railroad on the Alachua crossing.  New commissioners do not seem as committed to waterfront development as previous commissions. Plans to beautify the waterfront seem to have moved from a priority to the back burner as the new commissioners decreed such improvements to be “wants, not needs.”  Whether commissioners truly understand the CRA and its goals comes into play when a commissioner makes public comments about “not wanting to benefit one developer.”  While Goodsell said that he had a good working relationship with City Manager Michael Czymbor, he has had no contact with Joe Gerrity since Gerrity served as city mayor about 10 years ago.

Where is the city on this project today?

On February 19, 2013, before the FBCC voted to return the Forward Fernandina loan to the lenders unspent, Goodsell sent the email message below to City Manager Joe Gerrity:

Please be advised that pursuant to correspondence from the City Engineer received on May 12, 2012 and my subsequent meeting with the City Engineer related to the proposed City improvements to Waterfront and Alachua Street that border and service my property, I intend to develop a Master Plan for the development of 14 town homes on my property’s 14 platted lots of records. As you are aware I have received HDC Design approval for five town homes fronting N. Second Street, but the 9 lots fronting the railroad/Front Street need solutions to problems that are out of my control

I purchased this property in 2003 with the intention of building high end town homes with the understanding that the City was committed to the improvements on Front Street. Since that time I have spent a considerable amount of time and money on planning, design, engineering and environmental studies. None of which is meaningful without the City’s master plan and schedule for Front Street and related improvements. After 10 years and still no plan or progress that I am aware of, I am reluctant to spend any more time and money until I can be assured of the City’s will and financial commitment is there to make the necessary improvements.

My dream was to create a product that I would be proud of and be a positive influence for the future development of the Historic District. Now I am not sure whether the City or the market is ready for that.

Please keep me advised of any financially funded master plan, at which time I look forward to working with the City toward creating a beautiful waterfront community.

Sincerely,  Dick Goodsell/Goodsell Nassau, LLC

To date, he has received no reply to this email from Gerrity or commissioners, although local resident Lou Goldman, a member of the City’s Community Redevelopment Area Advisory Board (CRAAB), did speak with him about his project and reported back to that body.  The CRAAB passed two motions in an attempt to prod the city into at least acknowledging the email.  To date, that has not happened.  However, circumstances have also changed with the FBCC’s apparent dropping of CRA development plans.  At this point, Goodsell sees nothing to be gained from meeting with city officials.

What has happened, however, was a phone call to Goodsell from City Attorney Tammi Bach who asked him on behalf of the City Commission to give the city an easement to allow a sidewalk along the west side of his property.  Goodsell, who is definitely a gentleman, allowed to me that he had been direct in refusing to do so.  He said, “I want to know what they are going to do [to resolve infrastructure issues] first.”

What are some of the problems this project faces with regard to infrastructure?

View of  Goodsell property
View of Goodsell property

I asked Goodsell to talk about some of the infrastructure issues that his project faces.  He said that because his project fronts on the railroad, not Front Street, there are issues on how his project can be serviced with water and storm water drainage. 

Because his development is residential, Goodsell needs help from the city in dealing with the railroad and creating a quiet zone.  Goodsell said that the railroad informed him that they do not run trains along Front Street before 8:30 a.m., and that they only run 5 trains daily through the area.  He has stayed at the Downtown Hampton Inn and knows that is not true.

Goodsell said that he would solve the beautification issue along his property.   He would create a “green screen” between the railroad and a 10-foot wide sidewalk that he would build on the west side of his property.  He would also add a low retaining wall and additional planting between the sidewalk and his Front Street-facing townhouses.  One of the problems he faces is determining the final elevation of the west side of the development.  Without such a determination, which involves city participation, he cannot put in a sidewalk.

How would the city directly benefit from this project?

Other than beautification, Goodsell’s project would bring substantial ad valorem tax revenues to the CRA.  With the 5 first phase units priced around $750K each, and the remaining 9 in Phase 2 priced around $850K each, he would significantly expand the tax base.

Is Fernandina Beach developer friendly?

Goodsell was quick to point out that he was happy with the interactions he has had with city staff, specifically CDD Director Marshall McCrary and Senior Planner Adrienne Burke.  While he has characterized the permitting process as “time consuming, ” he believes that staff has been helpful and cooperative.  He has not been as forthcoming with praise for all the city commissioners or City Manager Gerrity.  He has not met with any of them, and to date has not received a response to his email to Gerrity.

I asked Mr. Goodsell what advice he might give to other developers interested in Fernandina Beach CRA projects.  He replied, “They must understand what a time consuming process this is.”  He went on to say that not only has this project taken years of his time, it has also taken significant time of city staff, builders like Clayton Buchanan and his real estate agent, Tony Quattrochi.  And there is the money that has been spent, not an inconsiderable sum.  Yet to date there is nothing to show for the time, effort or money invested in the project.

He again stressed the need for consistency in direction over time from commission to commission.  Development is risky business, and developers must carefully consider whether or not it is worth it to take the chance that in one or two years the Fernandina Beach city government will back off publicized plans or change ground rules for those who would like to build projects in the area.

Will this project ever get off the drawing table?

Dick Goodsell has been in the business of residential development since 1961.  By 1967 he was in business for himself.  He has built more than 40 high-end developments in Atlanta, GA and Charlotte, NC.  He is not a man who discourages easily.  He said that his goal is to see this project completed in his lifetime, while allowing that now in his late 70’s, he is not sure how much longer he wants to stay in the development business. When I asked him the status of his CRA project, he said, “You can say that I have pulled out temporarily.”

Sounds to me like the ball is in the city’s court.

Suanne-2Editor’s Note:  Suanne Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved toFernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city.  We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

April 23, 2013 5:05 p.m.

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Tony Quiattrochi
Tony Quiattrochi (@guest_6725)
11 years ago

This article defines the root of the issues we, as citizens of Fernandina Beach, face knowing the reality that quality development within the CRA is slipping away. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. Well done.

Bob Allison
Bob Allison (@guest_6726)
11 years ago

Dick, the problem is not just along the waterfront. The same problem exists city wide. There is much talk of the need for economic development but never any real support from City Hall. You may know I have proposed spending several million dollars to build the nation’s finest RV Resort on Amelia Island. This project would benefit every single business in the community and create nearly 50 jobs but there is no support where it counts……at City Hall. My situation may also be unique in that I have a personal track record of bringing important improvements to the City of Fernandina Beach.. I leased the downtown waterfront in 1984 and raised $7 million in private investment to build Fernandina Harbor Marina and Brett’s restaurant but this matters not. Guys like us who are genuinely interested in improving Fernandina Beach and who have the resources to actually make positive development happen will simply have to wait on the sidelines, patiently, until the corridors of City Hall are occupied by more enlightened public servants.

Bob Allison

Darlene Morris
Darlene Morris (@guest_6759)
11 years ago

The last true champions of change within the downtown district ended in the 70’s when our City Commission, thru much outcry from the community, approved the beautification of Historic downtown Fernandina, which we all enjoy today…and is the very reason we have shifted from a very quiet mill town community to a vibrant destination resort community. What has happened to implementation of positive Vision for our community? Can no one see the forest thru the trees any more?

My family has enjoyed life on this island since the 50’s.