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'A Life of Its Own'

Mack Bissette - Springfield, Jacksonville
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.

Springfield, Jacksonville
“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
[Photo: Jon Fletcher]

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.

Springfield, Jacksonville
Neighborhood community garden

Amanda Searle - Springfield, Jacksonville
Amanda Searle
A key element in Springfield’s resilience has been the presence of strong, active civic organizations, from longtime groups like the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council to newer efforts that include Sustainable Springfield. This summer, more than 50 neighbors banded together to renovate the deteriorating home of an elderly resident, “Miss Maggie,” who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. Amanda Searle, pictured above in her back yard, is a member of a group that organized a community garden, top. She is working with Springfield lot owners and University of Florida extension agents on creating an urban orchard and hopes to launch an aquaculture project to raise fish for families and local restaurants. “One person inspires the rest and on it goes,” she says.
[Photos: Jon Fletcher]

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Bissette then researched historic urban neighborhoods around the Southeast. In Springfield, he says, active organizations such as the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council and the Springfield Woman's Club, founded in 1904, provided the strong foundation needed for a turnaround. The city's new zoning rules ultimately cinched his decision to move his family to Jacksonville and launch SRG Homes and Neighborhoods.

Bissette bought more than 100 empty lots in Springfield and began to build Craftsman-style houses that look more like renovated historic homes than new construction. He took an urban economics approach to improving the neighborhood, promoting the community and funding private trash pick-up on the theory that clean sidewalks would change outside attitudes toward the area and draw new residents.

It did. Many in Springfield say Bissette's work transformed entire blocks as SRG's stylish new houses became catalysts for others to invest. Bissette estimates that each of the 80 homes he built sparked about three nearby historic renovations.

Even as Springfield's transition accelerated, Bissette drew inevitable attacks from some who vilified him for gentrifying the neighborhood and driving up prices. And when Florida's economy began to tank, some people wondered if Springfield might backslide into blight.

Springfield, Jacksonville
Springfield still has pockets of boarded-up homes, and a new wave of foreclosures is driving down home prices. [Photo: Jon Fletcher]

By the numbers, that looked like a possibility. Of the 43 homes that sold in Springfield in the first nine months of this year, half were foreclosures, bringing the median sales price down to just over $40,000, says Raymond Rodriguez, market consultant at the Real Estate Strategy Center of North Florida. While that sounds bad, it's double the median sales price for homes in the larger downtown region, according to data from the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors.

But many of those foreclosures are being snapped up by young professionals. And locals are still building homes, including an environmentally friendly house on Walnut Street in the Prairie architectural style, by Content Design Group and Breaking Ground Contracting. The Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council estimates that today about half of the neighborhood's homes are owner-occupied.

And some of those residents have begun investing in the neighborhood beyond their own homes. Andrew Macris and his wife, Erin, moved to Springfield from St. Johns County's massive Julington Creek Plantation in 2007. This fall, the couple bought the property next door to their own SRG-built home. Macris also moved his small advertising firm into the new commercial building, just two blocks from his house. "People who live here and who always wanted to open a business in Springfield, can now afford to invest," Macris says.

Lisa Simon - Springfield, Jacksonville
Lisa Simon, a Springfield resident for nine years, remembers having to convince the parents of her children’s friends that the neighborhood was safe. The departure of investors and flippers has created a more family-oriented, stable community, she says. [Photo: Jon Fletcher]

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Some say the real estate bust has helped in some ways, as falling prices drove out speculators. "This economy is drawing more real people to move here than has ever happened," says Lisa Simon, who bought her century-old home in Springfield and moved her family there in 2001.

Springfield still has its challenges, including pockets of boarded-up homes, and a new wave of foreclosures that is forcing out some families who bought at the top of the market. And for some outsiders, the neighborhood's image is still defined by the "scary days," when residents like Simon, now a Realtor, had to convince the parents of her children's friends that the neighborhood was safe enough for their kids to come over and play. "People used to say, ‘There are drug dealers in your neighborhood.' And I would say, ‘You've got drug dealers in your neighborhood, too — you just don't know who they are.' "

Springfield, Jacksonville
New Springfield commercial building

The community’s first new commercial project in decades was built at Third and Main by longtime Jacksonville developer Bill Cesery. The upper floors include 36 extended-stay residential units used by patients at the nearby University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute at Shands Jacksonville. At ground level are busy Uptown Market & Deli, City Kidz Ice Cream Cafe and other businesses. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, new stand-alone businesses include a Mediterranean restaurant at Sixth and Main, and a home-made candy and ice cream store in a restored Victorian on Pearl Street. Owner Peter Behringer is the first half of the Peterbrooke Chocolatier namesake.

Springfield, Jacksonville
Shawn McGuire, left, and Jeff Wright, owners of Three Layers bakery and coffee house on Walnut Street, are part of a new wave of Springfield entrepreneurs. [Photos: Jon Fletcher]

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Ironically, one of the casualties in Springfield's rebound is the man who helped accelerate it. The real estate crash has hammered Bissette along with other larger developers as home prices plummeted and financing dried up. Case in point: The McDermotts' $166,000 dream home, which Bissette built and sold originally for $316,000 to a woman who lost it in foreclosure. Today, he says, "I could not build that house for $166,000 if you gave me the land for free."

These days, Bissette is shedding lots and building workforce rentals while he looks for other development opportunities. "I thought that anybody with 100 lots in a national historic district with this kind of architectural beauty would be insulated from the oversupply and the craziness in the suburbs," he says. "I completely misread the tea leaves."

But he believes in Springfield more than ever.

"I always believed Springfield could be a case study for the nation," Bissette says. "It's become the most successful creative community I've ever seen. It has a life of its own. In the end, that's the measure of a true market."