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Changing tide: Heckscher Drive poised for change


For residential developers, the new found appeal of Heckscher Drive is all about the water.

From Heckscher, a view of structures lining the St. Johns River features a contrast of modest block homes, rusting trailers and mini stucco mansions. Despite its lack of city water, some local experts think the area is poised to undergo significant residential development.

It is the water at Heckscher Drive's edges that is buoying landowners' home values in a soft real estate market, and along with major retail development on the Northside, driving much of the interest in smaller scale development.

David Heekin, managing member of Pilottown LLC, said the company is scheduled to break ground in the first quarter of 2008 on Ocean Watch at Batten Island, a 12-condominium development on Heckscher Drive with plans for units priced between $599,000 and $749,000.

"Water helps weather bad markets," said Heekin, whose newly announced development already has reservations for several of the units. "It's still slow. We've just got to be patient."

Other developers also have plans in the works. Heekin said River City Market Place, a retail complex on 90 acres of land at Interstate 95 and Airport Road, is helping change the area's appeal. "People don't have to drive over the Dames Point Bridge to see a movie or go to a couple of good restaurants."

But there is more to the location that developers find attractive. On the north side of Heckscher, homes hide among the woods, weeds and wetlands, as tributaries from the river stretch to touch the backs of many of the properties.

"[What] makes the area attractive for residential development is the water," said Raymond Rodriguez, president of the Real Estate Strategy Center of North Florida Inc.

Another man's plans

One person also betting on Heckscher Drive developing as a mini hot spot for residential development is Ernie Saltmarsh, who owns about 60 acres of undeveloped marshland on Heckscher's north side. Saltmarsh's property is situated between the road and another residential development called Fort George Estates.

Saltmarsh's plans are also on a smaller scale, as opposed to developments with dozens and dozens of roofs sprouting up simultaneously elsewhere on the Northside. When the market improves, Saltmarsh plans to build single-family homes on the property.

"The community doesn't want it to be overdone," he said, citing a previous battle between residents and a company proposing a housing development on Fort George's old golf course, which is now part of a state park he hikes with his children.

Saltmarsh, a Jacksonville native and vice president of the Downtown branch of SunTrust Mortgage Inc., said he loves the Fort George area near the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

"This is some of the most beautiful land anywhere in Florida," he said. "There's no more of this to buy. It's all state land.

"People want this," he said.

The importance of being zoned

Last year, Pilottown paid $1.1 million for the Batten Island lot on just more than an acre where the small condominium development is going.

Heekin said a key in the purchase was the land's commercial zoning. "That's very rare, and because it was zoned commercial, we were able to put condos on it."

Saltmarsh said his 2.3 acres of land was recently rezoned "neighborhood commercial," a sign that city planning officials also recognize the changing nature of Heckscher Drive.

Heekin said many riverfront homes are being razed or "extremely renovated."

Though some owners of older riverfront homes hope to sell when the market improves, others will stay. "This community has a lot of folks who just simply love the area and, regardless of where the values go, are going to live their lives here," Saltmarsh said.

Increased activity stemming from new deals with Tokyo-based shipper Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd. of South Korea will mean an explosion of jobs at the nearby port over the next 10 years, said Nancy Rubin, director of communications and public relations at the Jacksonville Port Authority.

Hobart Joost Jr., principal and senior vice president of real estate firm Colliers Dickinson, said most future workers and their families likely would live in Northside housing developments, including those nearby at Dames Point and on Pecan Park Road.

Hobart Joost Jr., principal and senior vice president of real estate firm Colliers Dickinson, said most future workers and their families likely would live in Northside housing developments, including those nearby at Dames Point and on Pecan Park Road.

And he thinks Heckscher's riverfront row will soon change.

"All those little block homes on the water are going to be knocked down," Joost said. "When the market gets better, they're gone."

Changing times

Across the road from a stretch of Saltmarsh's property is Barz, a bar that has occupied its corner spot on the St. Johns River for more than three decades. From Barz' back door is a wide-screen view of shrimp boats circling an opposing island on the river's rough, blue waters.

Barz manager Elaine Shaw said the close-knit community is being affected by a sense that progress has discovered its little portion of the river.

Shaw is part of the change, saying a contract has been signed to sell Barz and its land.

"This is God's country," she said. "In the past, it's been a very small community. Things are changing. But change is good. That's my motto."



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Revised: February 10, 2010 .

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