'A Life of Its Own'
Amid a sour economy, historic Springfield is mending on its own terms.
Mack Bissette, an Atlanta developer convinced that suburbs were overbuilt, was attracted to Springfield by its community involvement and strong historic-zoning regulations. He launched SRG Homes and Neighborhoods in 2003 and bought more than 100 lots in the community. The real estate crash has put Bissette’s venture on the verge of bankruptcy, however.
[Photo: Jon Fletcher]
Jacksonville newlyweds Brent and Angela McDermott bought themselves a heck of a wedding present this fall: An elegant new two-story home with a breezy front porch, hardwood floors and a price tag that made the builder wince, $166,000.
The historically inspired home is nestled amid the century-old oak trees of the Springfield neighborhood, just north of downtown Jacksonville's skyscrapers. The city's first suburb, Springfield dates to 1869. At about one square mile, with more than 2,000 homes, it is one of the largest historic residential districts in Florida, known for Queen Anne and Prairie-style architecture.
Springfield was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. But until revitalization began to take hold around a decade ago, the neighborhood also was known as one to avoid. Grand homes built by Jacksonville's early 20th-century business leaders had grown decrepit; the streets, unsafe. By 1998, only 14% of the district was owner-occupied. Drugs were dealt openly.
“I always believed Springfield could be a case study for the nation. It’s become the most successful creative community I’ve ever seen.”
— Mack Bissette, owner of SRG Homes and Neighborhoods
What's happened since reflects in large part the determination and civic values of residents who invested in the neighborhood. The turnaround began with historic-home aficionados who restored hundred-year-old houses one by one. After years of half-start legislation and action plans that began in 1992, then-Mayor John Delaney launched the Springfield Auction, a sparkplug with incentives that got owners of derelict housing to sell to qualified buyers. (Delaney also pushed Bank of America to provide financing at a time when lenders wouldn't do mortgages in the neighborhood.)
In 2000, the city passed strong historic-zoning regulations for the neighborhood. The new rules and programs, shaped by late Jacksonville planning director Jeannie Fewell with input from local non-profits, banned ubiquitous chain-link fences, pay phones and rooming houses. They paved the way for new homes built in the style of the past.
The moves eventually attracted a cadre of developers, including several who had helped revitalize historic East Atlanta. The first and most active of the transplants was Mack Bissette. After decades in real estate valuation, Bissette had become convinced that the suburbs were overbuilt, overvalued and headed for a fall. Americans, he felt, were becoming nostalgic for traditional civic virtues, from walkable neighborhoods to community schools. He began his development career in 1996 renovating historic bungalows in East Atlanta and building hotels in the Southeast, then moved on to building historically inspired homes in Atlanta. He began to pull out in 2003, as larger builders saturated the market.