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City Council action: Affordable housing at closed Northside school; stricter rules for nonprofit funding; 2 big new developments

Claire Heddles
Jacksonville City Council approved a rezoning Tuesday that will allow Duval County Public Schools to sell the former Lake Forest Elementary School to Ability Housing for $1 million.

City Council approved a rezoning Tuesday that allows Duval Schools to sell a shuttered school in Jacksonville’s Northside to affordable housing developer Ability Housing in a 6-10 vote after more than an hour of debate.

A group of neighbors pleaded with council to oppose the project, saying they weren’t included in the decision. The school district, which didn’t go through a competitive bidding process, says this project is the best route to avoid blight in the neighborhood. 

What to do with shuttered schools will likely come up again, as the district carries out a plan to demolish 44 schools and rebuild 28. Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson, who is the council's liaison to the school district, said both governing bodies need be more proactive in getting community input. 

"I don't think that this is a responsibility and a problem that lies solely with the Duval County School District," Priestly Jackson said. "I think it's gonna be a problem for all of us as the schools close throughout the city."

Duval Schools is using the funds from a half-cent sales tax voters approved last year to carry out its plan to demolish dozens of schools and build some new ones. 

Two big developments get Council green light

Two big new developments will get underway in Jacksonville after the City Council signed off on them Tuesday.

First, more than 11,000 homes are coming to Jacksonville’s Westside. The project has been delayed amid a conflict over who would provide water and sewer service to the homes.

The private developer, 301 Capital Partners, and public utility JEA reached an agreement this week that the developer would build most of the infrastructure and JEA will serve the new customers. The new homes are in councilman Randy White’s District 12.

The second development moving forward will demolish the former Times-Union building in Brooklyn to build apartments, a restaurant, shops and a parking garage. Taxpayers will cover about 15% of the cost of the development with about $30 million in city grants. Both proposals passed the Council unanimously Tuesday. 

Nonprofit funding oversight

Council also passed a new, stricter process for awarding city grant money to nonprofits, following public outcry over the Council’s recently awarding $800,000 to nonprofits headed by members of the Council.

Only one Council member opposed the proposal, Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson, who said it could drive away less-established organizations. The rest of Council said the extra scrutiny on nonprofit funding is needed to improve public trust in city government. 

Councilman Terrance Freeman, whose nonprofit received a $100,000 non-compete grant from the city in September, voted for the new rule, but said he hopes it doesn’t stop nonprofits from applying for city funds. 

"My concern, and what I hope anybody in the nonprofit sector who's watching this tonight, I hope this does not deter you from putting yourself forward and representing all parts of our city," Freeman said. "That is not the intent of this bill."

The new rule, proposed by Councilman Rory Diamond, applies only to city funds, not state or federal grants, like federal COVID relief dollars that the city distributes. Diamond said he plans to address state and federal funds that are given to nonprofits separately.

Election changes fail

Finally, Duval's local governing body voted against referendums asking Duval County residents if they want to reduce the number of City Council members from 19 to 14, and if they want to align local elections with state and national voting calendars.

Sydney manages community engagement programs like WJCT News' Coronavirus Texting Service. Originally from the mountains of upstate New York, she relocated to Jacksonville from Kentucky, where she reported on Appalachia's coal industry.
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.