'It's Not All Doom and Gloom'; Don't Tell Jacksonville Developer Wally Devlin That the Real Estate Market Is Cooling -- His High-End Residential Projects Are Springing Up across the Region

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Byline: ALISON TRINIDAD

PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- The real estate market might be cooling down, but things are just heating up for developer Wally Devlin Jr.

Devlin, chief executive of The Devlin Group in Jacksonville Beach, has handfuls of new, multimillion-dollar projects coasting through the pipeline from North Carolina to the First Coast. And as the final coat of paint dries at one, mounds of dirt are churned at another.

It's Devlin's personal way of proving that the building business isn't dead.

"It's not all doom and gloom," Devlin said. "I'm very positive on this market and we continue to buy and build."

Devlin, whose cadre of partners range from local developers to out-of-state investors, says he has about 34 projects in the works from concept to construction. Nearly all are high-end developments that cater to buyers with money to spare.

"He has a great feel for real estate," said Paul Fletcher, president of Fletcher Management Corp. "He likes to do, just like we do, the upscale market. There's a big demand there."

Fletcher and Devlin, longtime acquaintances, are collaborating on about five projects, including an equestrian club in St. Johns County, upscale condos in Mayport and large estates on Black Hammock Island. Plans for each of those projects are in the design phase.

To be sure, Devlin (like most land developers) has had his share of criticism -- most notably, in 2003, when residents killed a proposal to build a 550-condo yacht club in Jacksonville Beach. But he was quick to recover: Devlin dropped the Jacksonville Beach plans and now is tackling a $250 million redevelopment in St. Augustine, a project that is set to brand the historic city as a true-blue luxury destination.

"I tried to build something very beautiful at the entrance of Jacksonville Beach ... [but] I don't want to go anywhere I'm not wanted," Devlin said.

TOP-DOLLAR PROJECTS

Devlin had worked his way through the state -- from Sarasota to Tampa to Daytona Beach -- before landing in Jacksonville in 1992.

"I ran out of land," he quips.

Depending on the price and projected profit, Devlin has bought up, sold off and built on property. Though the bulk of his past projects are residential, those upcoming are a complex mix of retail, residential and office uses. Water, whether it's an ocean, a river or a lake, is the running theme.

And Devlin doesn't take a cookie-cutter approach, and that's why he charges top dollar; two-bedroom condos planned for the St. Johns Town Center are expected to average about $400,000 each, while those in St. Augustine likely will run upwards of $1 million each.

"He's not scared to tackle any kind of development," notes Ryan Claxton, a development associate at The Devlin Group. "We're talking about $1 million plus per acre sometimes, just to purchase the dirt. He has the vision to see that, yeah, it's expensive to buy the dirt but there's an upside."

A vision shared by the city of St. Augustine is finally taking shape thanks to Devlin, who is the primary developer of San Sebastian Inland Harbor. The $250 million project is at the western entrance of the city on King Street at the San Sebastian River, formerly the site of an industrial coal plant. City planners have been working since the mid-1980s to revitalize the area.

"This is probably one of the biggest developments in the city in the last 20 years, from a fiscal standpoint," said Tim Burchfield, chief administrative officer of St. Augustine.

Once built, San Sebastian Inland Harbor is expected to add from $80 million to $100 million to the city tax base. Already, redevelopment has picked up in surrounding neighborhoods, Burchfield said.

"Like any infill project, we hope that it becomes contagious, the redevelopment, so to speak," said Russ Ervin, a principal of the design firm behind the San Sebastian master plan. …