Downtown Jacksonville has had some issues. For over three decades the urban core was locked in a downward spiral. Between failed, stalled, and poorly planned redevelopment schemes – as well as the exodus of major retailers – many in the city had written Downtown off. It was viewed as a place to visit quaint buildings, overgrown surface parking where structures once to stood, and a Skyway that went nowhere.
Believers in Downtown saw something doubters didn’t – a new identity for Jacksonville’s heart and soul. Within the past few years Downtown has seen a flurry of activity that aims to radically change the city’s center.
One of the most important aspects in the revitalization of Downtown has been the preservation and renewal of some of Jacksonville’s oldest and most valuable structures. The architectural fabric of a city’s urban core defines its global identity. A skyline gives a city its character. A city’s downtown streets give visitors a taste of what it’s like to live in that city.
That is why Downtown advocates are so passionate about the urban core. They see how important it is in the perception of the city.
“The benefits of adaptively reusing historic buildings are evident in visiting many of our most successful downtowns, from Boston and Pittsburgh to Denver and Portland,” said Katherine Hardwick of Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI). “While the cost of redevelopment may be higher than ‘greenfield’ development, or developing new from the ground up, there are significant societal and environmental advantages to adaptive reuse. Vacant buildings and lots hurt surrounding property values. Often, these buildings are poorly maintained and fall into disrepair, which tends to invite vandalism, and potentially, criminal behavior. On the other hand, redeveloped properties create a sense of ownership and community pride, and discourage crime.”
The following structures are the potential projects that may forge Downtown’s future. Many of these buildings currently stand vacant, but the right investor and project could change everything. For some of them, the tides have already turned and a revitalized urban core may be just beyond the horizon.
Laura Street Trio
The Laura Street Trio consists of the Florida Life Building, the Bisbee Building and the Old Florida National Bank (also known as the Marble Bank). All three structures were built within the first 15 years of the 20th century and are Jacksonville landmarks. Regional legend and architect, Henry J. Klutho, designed two of the buildings. The Bisbee Building was the first reinforced concrete high-rise in the Southern United States.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan helped finance the purchase of these buildings in early 2013 by developer Stephen Atkins. The plans present a very exciting project, which includes two new restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a boutique hotel by Marriott Courtyard. In October, the State of Florida recommended the buildings for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. If approved, they can qualify for federal historic tax credits that will help cover the preservation and rehabilitation costs.
Constructed in 1926, the Barnett Building remained the tallest building in Jacksonville for nearly 30 years, until the construction of the Aetna Building in the 1950s. Similar to the Laura Street Trio, its rehabilitation would contribute significantly to a major thoroughfare in Downtown’s core. Atkins, whose group also purchased the building, said plans for the Barnett Building include a university-level education center with student housing to be developed in the area as well.
The Ambassador Hotel is tucked behind the new Duval County Courthouse. Originally opened in 1924 as luxury apartments, it was converted to a hotel in 1944 and fell into disrepair in the 1990s. Even though it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, its fortunes remained grim.
In March, long-stalled plans to reinvigorate the complex into 57 apartments started to move forward and the hotel will be branded as the Ambassador Lofts. This project is currently in the design review process.
Haydon Burns Library
Built in 1965 and serving and Downtown’s main library until 2005, the Haydon Burns Library is a mid-century gem designed by local architect Taylor Hardwick. It is one of the most recognizable structures Downtown with its funky styling and colorful mosaics.
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund purchased the building earlier this year and selected Danis and KBJ Architects, Inc. as lead contractors for development, which will house philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. Interior demolition is expected to begin before the end of the year with the building ready for occupancy by mid-2015. With over 80,000 square feet of rentable space and a key anchor in Downtown’s entertainment district, The Elbow, there is a great opportunity to incorporate first-floor retail to promote Downtown’s nightlife scene.
The Bostwick Building (also known as the Jaguar Building)
The historic structure rests at the bottom of the Main Street Bridge and is another anchor for The Elbow. It was the first building permitted following the Great Fire in 1901 and is located in perhaps the most intact block of historic buildings that exists Downtown today.
It made the Jacksonville Historical Society’s “12 Worth Saving” list and today the Bostwick Building is under contract for sale to a group that plans to restore the building and use it as a high-end restaurant. The plans include a rooftop patio for al fresco dining overlooking the Main Street Bridge and the surrounding skyline with an opening set for November 2014. It is also under consideration by the City Council for designation as a Local Landmark and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
This historic neighborhood is in the midst of a radical transformation. 220 Riverside is one of the first of several new mixed-use developments in the neighborhood that is technically part of Downtown. Construction on the 220 complex will be completed by summer 2014. The property will have 294 residential units, 18,000 square feet of retail space, and a community park, Unity Plaza, which plans to introduce a full calendar of performing and visual art, wellness, education, and leadership experiences for the community.
In addition to 220 Riverside, several other developments are slated to break ground this year, including a new shopping center that is rumored to contain a Fresh Market and a Chipotle. Intuition Ale Works is also eyeing the area for a brand new brewery.
Your new Downtown
Despite the fact that Jacksonville’s massive suburbs have been siphoning the life out of Downtown for years, the urban center of the city is at the cusp of resurgence. According to DVI, nationwide people are flocking back to city centers. Studies show 77 percent of millennials prefer to live in urban environments. In turn, these successful downtowns create a beneficial cycle where the large pool of employable talent attracts employers and talent is drawn to the abundance of job opportunities.
Void would like to personally thank Katherine Hardwick and Downtown Vision, Inc. for their insight in developing this feature. Visit downtownjacksonville.org for more information on everything going on in our city’s vibrant urban core.