Adapt and Reuse or Demolish with a Purpose
From the safety of the River Club high atop the Wells Fargo building in downtown Jacksonville we don’t hear a countdown, but the muffled sound of a warning siren from three blocks away makes it through the double-paned glass we are all intently peering through. I have a brief moment of illogical panic: “What if something goes terribly wrong and brings down the building we’re in as well?” As the staccato booms of the timed implosions reach our ears I realize that it’s too late to worry about such possibilities now, the old city hall annex is already being reduced to a pile of rubble right in front of our eyes. Over three hundred city and business leaders and their families ooh and aah as the fifteen-story, fifty-nine-year-old building caves in on itself and disappears in a thick, rapidly expanding cloud of dust.
I was attending an “implosion viewing” organized by Perry McCall Construction, Inc. and the mood was festive as everyone enjoyed coffee, donuts, and networking, encouraged by the kind words in Executive Vice President Brad Glass’s email invitation, “Please bring lots of business cards and share them with each other. Make an effort to introduce yourself to others and ask about their business and how you might help them succeed.” It was just the sort of event that celebrates the best of Jacksonville, a big city with just the right amount of small town charm.
However, when it comes to the city’s decisions about demolishing some of its older buildings without a plan in place, many local architects don’t find much to celebrate. Steve Lovett, a partner with ELM – Ervin Lovett Miller, echoes the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he says, “Multimillion dollar civic investment shouldn’t be pursued without a clear plan, whether it’s construction, demolition, or anything else. With no plan, any success is left to dumb luck.” Although city leaders have made vague promises of a revitalized Downtown when referring to the demolition of the city hall annex and the old Duval County Courthouse there doesn’t yet seem to be a viable strategy for possible future development of the East Bay Street sites. And it now appears that the city is going to introduce the wrecking ball to yet another iconic riverfront structure later this year instead of considering adaptive reuse proposals. Step up Jacksonville Landing, it looks like you’re the next to go.
Architect and founder of studioYVESinc+ Yves Rathle says he was one of the original designers that worked on the Landing in the 1980s with the Rouse Company and architect Benjamin Thompson, pioneers of the festival marketplace. Rathle says he also worked on the Landing’s sister project, the Bayside Marketplace in Miami. Bayside is now undergoing extensive renovations that were approved by the Miami Commission and city voters in 2014. Although it may have looked dated and a bit shabby five years ago, the structure remained a popular tourist draw and was deemed worthy of saving, unlike our own once-popular mall. Some local architects agree that the Landing does have flaws that need to be addressed, but say that the current state of the Landing has more to do with its management and the general decline of the area in the past thirty years than its architecture.
Today Rathle is working with Chris Flagg of Haskell to develop a plan for a riverfront project that is going to take the place of another older building now deemed obsolete and scheduled for demolition. The Times-Union building, built in the mid-1960s and a prime example of mid-century modern architecture, now sits empty, abandoned by the journalists who once roamed its formerly busy hallways. The five-story structure and nearly twenty-acre site on the St. Johns River wasn’t part of the deal when the Morris family sold the Times-Union to GateHouse Media in 2017. Although the family’s plans to redevelop the property will soon lead to the razing of the structures on the site, including the Times-Union building, Rathle explains that the family wants to do what is best for Jacksonville, “it’s important to have a comprehensive, executable plan prior to demolition of its legacy structures.”
Representatives for the Morris family are now envisioning the site’s full potential and are addressing issues that include creating usable green spaces that provide both physical and visual access to the river and a revitalized McCoys Creek (currently paved over and flowing under the parking lot) along with a variety of mixed-use activities to generate pedestrian traffic. In addition, they are studying the surrounding environment and community to see how it will shape the architecture that is to be designed for residential, dining, shopping, and hotel spaces and exploring sustainable environmentally friendly options such as wind and solar power and greywater recycling. Allen Grinalds, the Morris family director of real estate, says, “We can complete a good development on our own quickly, or we can take a bit more time in close coordination with multiple stakeholders and create a truly impactful and transformational development that is a game changer for downtown Jacksonville.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of buildings in Jacksonville that may not be destined for destruction. According to Marjorie Dennis of the mayor’s office, “The Historic Preservation Commission votes to approve or deny demolition.” The commission also determines if a building meets the criteria for historic designation. In addition to requiring that “in general a structure must be at least fifty years old,” the city’s municipal code lists seven criteria of which at least two must be met. They include the following conditions for buildings under scrutiny: recognized for the quality of its architecture; identified as the work of a master builder, designer, or architect; or suited for preservation or restoration.
Tom Hurst, a principal at Dasher Hurst Architects (DHA), says that his firm has been actively working on designs for the adaptive reuse of two of Jacksonville’s listed historic landmarks, the Barnett Building and the Laura Trio, for fifteen years, beginning with their involvement with Cameron Kuhn while at the now defunct Rink Design. When Kuhn’s plans for renovations failed, the Southeast Group purchased the buildings in 2013 and DHA started work on new designs for the buildings as well as a supporting parking structure. The 18-story Barnett Building was constructed in 1926 and is now being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for historic tax credits. DHA teamed with KBJ Architects in 2017 to fully restore the soon to be completed building that will accommodate retail banking, commercial office, and higher education spaces, along with residential apartments on the top eleven floors. The Laura Trio is a collection of three historic structures, two of which were designed by one of Jacksonville’s most prolific architects, Henry Klutho, that were all built soon after the great fire of 1901. Unoccupied for over twenty years, the buildings are now in the design stages of a mixed-use development strategy that will restore them to their former glory as well as add a new eight-story addition.
“Adaptive reuse projects such as these are very complicated due to a number of factors,” says Hurst. Original layouts of the buildings that were often not intended for the functions they are being adapted for, limited handicapped accessibility, and general deterioration of older structures that can be difficult to overcome are just a few of the issues encountered by architects and developers. Projects located in dense urban areas also present logistical construction challenges that aren’t encountered on open suburban properties. As a result, these projects can be significantly more expensive to develop than new buildings and they must often rely on public support or underwriting. Hurst feels that even with these hurdles to overcome it’s all worth it: “These types of projects are the most rewarding because they represent not just another building, but the restoration of a piece of a city’s heritage and history.” DHA recently learned that they will be working on the design for another adaptive reuse project to be developed in the near future, the 330,000-square-foot Union Terminal Warehouse built in the early 1900s.