(Originally published in 2010)
Meet Your Long-Time Neighbor
Location: W. 5th Street
Occupation: Real estate developer and investor
Fun Fact: While Michael is known for his historic restorations locally, he builds new developments in other cities such as Austin, TX and Cincinnati, OH.
Q: What brought you to Springfield ?
A: I was restoring houses in Atlanta in the mid 80’s when a friend of mine invited me to vacation in Atlantic Beach. I was always looking for what was around the corner, and came upon Historic Springfield. As everyone knows, it was a complete dump back then. You name the illegal activity and it was happening in Springfield. You name it and it was going down here to the tenth power. Crime, poverty, corruption….everything. The City of Jacksonville dumped all it’s bad things in this one little area and kept a lid on it, not wanting anything to escape to the suburbs. Well, I wasn’t interested, but I did keep my eye on the area.
A few years later a lot of smart people and important institutions started to pay attention to Springfield. The famed DuPont family used to vacation in the neighborhood back in it’s heyday, so they had a soft spot for it. They designated part of their trust for improvements to the area. Harvard and the National Trust started eyeing the area. That caught my attention. Soon after, it was designated as a historically significant area, with significant history and architecture. Significant to the city, to the state, and deemed significant nationally.
I bought my first house in Springfield in 1988, but didn’t actually move here until 1991.
Q: What were some of your challenges or concerns at that time?
A: My God, what wasn’t I concerned about? I was doing well in Atlanta and left a comfortable situation there to move down into lawless chaos. People thought I had lost my mind, and I thought I was crazy myself sometimes.
My concerns were, in no particular order:
1. Everything was slated for demolition. Seriously, almost everything. That’s one of the reasons the federal government acted so quickly in designating the area a National Historic District.
2. You couldn’t get financing here. That was out of the question. Everything in the area was “redlined”. It was cash or nothing.
3. Crime, of course, was horrendous. Living conditions for the people living in he area were generally awful.
4. Local government at all levels turned a blind eye to the area, from the top down. Police were corrupt and selectively enforced laws in the area.
5. Zoning was awful. The overall infrastructure was terrible.
Q: What kind of changes have you seen since 1988?
A: There have been countless changes, both systematic and small.
Former Mayor Delaney, Jeanie Fuel, Preston Haskell, Tony Sleiman, Ring Power, and a bunch of other powerful city leaders got together and tried to hammer out some kind of vision for how to get Jacksonville right side up again. I mean, Jacksonville has characteristics other cities would die for: a downtown river, surrounding existing historic neighborhoods, etc, yet the urban core was floundering!
A city is like a bicycle wheel, with downtown at the center, and the spokes shoot out from that. If the center of the wheel is broken, the whole thing caves in. And that’s what was in danger of happening. So that was the first step to big, systematic changes. It was decided that Springfield had to improve substantially before downtown would make it.
You see, the only thing that matters in local government is tax revenue. It’s not about Democrat or Republican on the local level; it’s just about increasing the tax base. That’s how cities grow. And Springfield was freaking goldmine that they had let pass.
Regarding more specific changes, the percentage change of property values in Springfield have far exceeded any other area’s increase in value. You could buy a lot for $500 when I first moved here. Heck, people would give them away, literally, just so they wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.
Also, rents have more or less leveled out equal to Riverside, which is amazing. When I moved here, a lease was unheard of. People paid by the week, sometimes by the day. You can imagine what went on in those properties. Now, we field calls from people wanting to live specifically in Springfield. It’s night and day.
The population has changed too. It’s a mixture of all kinds of people, rich and poor, black and white, young and old. It’s changed dramatically for the better.
Lastly, the level of support from police has increased substantially. If you called the cops back then, they could care less. It was an extremely low priority. Nowadays, police are a huge asset and support to the community. A number of police officers live here now, which is amazing if you think about it.
Q: Does your house have a story?
A: It has a long story, and I’ve documented most of it. Construction began in 1915 and ended in 1917, making it one of the last original houses built in the neighborhood. Arthur Stephens, the President of Merrill Stephens Ship Building Company at the time, built it. He had a PhD from MIT and had friends in high places, per se. I found letters from Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Edison in the attic, with original Thomas Edison light bulbs. Original.
The house itself is made out of ship building materials, so it’s extremely unique. You’ll find marine brass throughout the house, a ship’s boiler in the basement, and most of the house was made out of a special kind of ship building cement that Arthur Stephen’s patented. It’s a steel frame structure too, not wood. The house was made to be hurricane proof, termite proof, and fire proof. Pretty indestructible, right?
Well, it was depilated and set for demo when I bought it. Very bad shape. Seven people were murdered inside the house since it had gone into disrepair; it was open to the elements for 7 years and it needed a complete restoration.
It was hell, absolute hell, restoring it. And I fought the city tooth and nail to do so. They pulled out every dirty trick in the book to get me to just quit and give up. Eventually, through some well placed phone calls, we won their support and things went smoother.
Q: Do you have any memorable stories you can share?
A: Too many. I’m not a big gun person really, but there was so much crime, theft, vandalism, etc going on in our work sites back then that I suited up all my work crew with western-style holsters and pistols. Lone Ranger style. They wore their pistols on their work belts and our vandalism rates dropped to zero. That problem was solved in a hurry.
Another funny story was when my house was just about finished and I wanted to have the electricity turned on. That was a much bigger deal than I anticipated. I went into the JEA office, told them where I lived and that I wanted my power turned on. They looked at me like I was nuts, but I left with having paid the fee and everything was set. Well, the morning that my power was to be turned on, 8 JEA trucks showed outside my house. Apparently the power hadn’t officially been used by anyone on my block for years. Everyone was stealing electricity! It took 8 trucks and a full day to legally turn on the power to my block. I heard it cost JEA $150k.
The house has been featured in various design magazines and TV shows too, which has been pretty cool.
Q: What did you enjoy about the neighborhood when you first moved in?
A: It had a bohemian feel. People could do almost whatever they wanted, without fear of law or regulations. It was the Wild West, an unpainted canvas with endless possibilities. And there I was, some yuppie, preppy guy from Atlanta making a go of it. Me and other pioneers, like Joyce Holbrook, Michael Bryant, David Mosley, The Baxley’s, the Reagan’s, Hal Sisk, and Raymond Tire, all shared a weird and wonderful bond.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the neighborhood now?
A: I would say the neighborhood is more like a part of me now. It’s almost a spiritual thing. I’ve lived her longer now than where I grew up. This is my home. This is where I want to be. You get to see the whole world here, the whole spectrum. Not just the view through the peephole of a gated community.
I was thinking about moving to Ortega at one time. Thinking about it seriously. But Sheriff Rutherford, coincidently, was also interested in the particular house I was looking at, and I started to compare to two properties. After reevaluating everything, I realized I couldn’t get anywhere near what I had now in Ortega. And I liked the people here. So why would I move? That was that, and I stayed.
I’m here forever now….just bury me here!
Q: Do you take part in any of the neighborhood events or organizations?
A: I was on every kind of board, committee, and task force there was for a long time. I served on the SPAR Board for almost 10 years, the municipal code board, Downtown Vision Council, VP of Neighborhood Housing Services, etc. I’m not as active in the local organizations anymore, but I do take interest if there’s an important issue happening in the neighborhood.
Q: How do you see the neighborhood progressing in the future?
A: It will keep trending upward. The quality of restorations in the neighborhood has gotten much better. There aren’t as many flippers looking to make a quick buck, which is good.
Progress in the neighborhood has far surpassed the commercial corridors, especially Main Street. That should be the focus: Main Street. Main Street. Main Street. We have new roads, great landscaping, and even dramatic lighting. We need the right kind of businesses now. My big thing is getting a Publix into the neighborhood. I’ve had discussions with them before, but the numbers aren’t right yet. It may not happen in the next few years, but mark my words…it will happen.
Q: Is there anything that you’d like to say to you someone thinking about moving into the neighborhood?
A: In general, this is the single greatest time to buy real estate in my lifetime. You couldn’t pick a better time to buy. All the stars are aligned for the buyer right now.
Historic Springfield, specially, is on the upswing and it has a lot of momentum.
Property values will comeback, there’s no doubt in my mind, across the board really. But Springfield stands to especially benefit. The ROI for the city is so awesome here, because there is relatively low infrastructure costs. So the city will make it a priority to continue to aid Springfield it’s rebirth. It can’t afford not to. We may just have to remind them of that now and then.
Meet Your New Neighbors
Name: Crissie, Max, and Charlotte
Location: Hubbard Street
Occupation: Crissie is a Watson real estate manger, Max works in commercial real estate, and Charlotte is a student at UNF.
Fun Fact: This family has an impressive travel resume, having visited China, Central America, Cuba, France, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand, among other destinations. Wait….isn’t visiting Cuba illegal?
Q: What brought you to Springfield?
Crissie: Our daughter, Charlotte, was attending Flagler College in St. Johns County. We lived in Naples, FL at the time, so when we came up to visit her we always ended up in Jacksonville. Max and I really enjoy unique, urban neighborhoods, so we used to seek the out in Jacksonville. That’s how we discovered Springfield, and we liked it.
I lost my job in Naples when the real sate bubble burst. We decided we were ready for a change of pace and moved to Jacksonville. Well, we still had to sell our house in Naples, so we rented in Jacksonville for a while. First in Mandarin, but we wanted something more urban and vibrant, so we rented in Riverside. When our house in Naples finally sold, we decided Springfield was the right place for us and here we are. We just moved in in February.
Max: Springfield just fit our lifestyle. We lived in downtown Atlanta for 8 years and loved it. So we wanted something somewhat similar. Something that was walkable, bikeable, and that felt like a real community.
Q: Did you purchase an old or new house, and why?
Max: We bought a new house. We’ve been at this moving thing a while and know that older houses can come with more maintenance. I didn’t want to go down that road again.
Crissie: Our house is new, yes, but had been very abused. The people living here before us, renters, were just horrible to the property. There was small fire damage in the kitchen and pet urine and candle wax everywhere.
Q: How did you decide that this specific house was the one for you?
We originally wanted an original, historic home, but everything just fell together for this one.
The molding is probably what did it for me. Very nice.
Q: What did your family and friends think of your decision to move into the neighborhood?
Crissie: Mixed emotions, I guess. Our friends and family that like older, more interesting neighborhoods think its great. The ones that have lived in the suburbs all their lives are dazed and confused about the whole thing.
Q: Since moving in, what have you enjoyed most about the neighborhood?
Crissie: The absolute best thing about the neighborhood is the people.
Max: We knew it had attractive architecture and a city lifestyle we enjoy, but we didn’t know how welcoming and active the community would be. More so than any other place we’ve ever lived. It’s a pleasant surprise, to say the least.
We also like frequenting the local businesses in the neighborhood. Three Layer’s monthly wine tastings especially.
Q: Do you plan on participating in any neighborhood events or organizations?
Crissie: We haven’t missed a First Friday party yet! We also participated in the Bike Tour, Home & Garden Tour, and the recent tree plantings in Klutho Park. We’re trying to ease in.
Q: How do you see the neighborhood evolving in the future?
Crissie: Generally, the trend is very positive. People are buying to live here now, rather than just buying as an investment flip. That trend should continue. Obviously we think the neighborhood has good things in it’s future……we moved here didn’t we?
Specifically, I’d really like to see the city put money into cleaning up Hogans Creek. It’s time they make that commitment.
Max: I’d like to see Main Street develop into something like Ft. Lauderdale’s Los Olas Boulevard. It’s a hip, eclectic collection of shops, restaurants, and clubs. I think Main Street can become something similar to that, it’ll just take time.
I’d also like to see the Emerald Necklace of parks fully restored and rejuvenated as Henry Klutho, the original architect, intended them to be. It would be a showpiece for the city.
Q: What advice would you give to people considering making a move to Springfield?
Crissie: You’ll learn everything you need to know about the neighborhood at a First Friday social!