By Dave Chauncey • Treasurer of the Young Lawyers Section
The Downtown Investment Authority has put forward a plan to invest in the adaptive recycling of Jacksonville’s most historic buildings. It is a plan that makes good business sense and should be supported.
In 1901 the city burned to the ground and nearly 2,400 buildings were destroyed. People from all walks of life have rebuilt their lives and this city from the ashes.
Unfortunately, in the past 50 years, many of the downtown historic buildings that gave a glimpse of their resurgence more than a century ago have been demolished.
It wasn’t long ago that Main Street was lined with historic buildings from Main Street Bridge to Springfield.
Bay, Forsyth, Adams, and Ashley streets were dense and passable with entertainment and shops.
Although times change and development with market demands is a must, the demolition of solid structures has filled the city center with a patchwork of vacant lots and surface parking spaces.
If you stand on the corner of Laura- and Adamsstraße, you can almost feel the former glory of the city center with its architecture, hotels, apartments and offices.
There was a step in a positive direction in 2016 when the city council voted to add a Downtown Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places.
We are still blessed with some remaining historical inventory of buildings that are worth preserving and reusing. Historical structures are often more architecturally significant and at the same time convey a common sense of place and identity. Most historical structures can only be replicated at exorbitant costs.
There is no doubt that some buildings are so dilapidated and expensive to reuse that they will have to be demolished. There are also buildings that outlast their use or there is a higher and better use.
The economics of conservation and adaptive reuse tell us that instead of investing millions of dollars in demolitions that rarely match actual market conditions, the city should reinvest in its historic buildings as the DIA plan provides.
In 2002, Tim McLendon, who I worked with as a research fellow at the University of Florida’s Center for Governmental Responsibility while studying law, co-authored a state-commissioned study of the economic impact of historic preservation and adaptive recycling in Florida.
The study put the effects of preservation and reuse at $ 4.2 billion a year. For example, nearly 60% of tourists said they wanted to visit a historic district or historic site while visiting Florida.
The study looked at the conservation and reuse efforts in Springfield in the late 1990s, led by then-Mayor John Delaney, that resulted in property values doubling in just a few years.
Springfield property values continue to skyrocket, which has had a positive impact on the city’s bottom line. Other local historic neighborhoods have had similar results.
St. Johns County was viewed as a role model by the study after decades of conservation and recycling efforts had reaped economic success.
Texas and Utah conducted similar studies that found that for every $ 1 invested in reuse, there was at least $ 4 in private sector investments.
You don’t have to go far to see other achievements. Downtown St. Petersburg has been known for years as “God’s Waiting Room” with little to no development and has been revitalized with a mix of reuse and fill development. Orlando, Sarasota, Savannah, and Greenville, South Carolina are some regional achievements.
Jacksonville has not seen a new high-rise on its Northbank since the Plaza Condominium at Berkman Plaza & Marina in 2002.
However, in restoring historic skyscrapers such as The Barnett Building, The Carling and 11 East Forsyth that are currently at or near full capacity, we have seen the preservation and reuse have been successful. These buildings were given new life by the Trust Fund for Historic Preservation established in 2002, for which, however, no funds are currently available.
Home runs, like the plans discussed at the shipyards (which will require a lot of government subsidies), would be a step forward if they happen, but to use a different baseball analogy we need to continue hitting singles and doubles with complementary uses that include the Go get the momentum. Eventually, we’ll be making lots of home runs, including developing new fillings, while the market works.
The preservation of historical monuments and the reuse are an essential part of the revitalization of an urban core. The DIA’s plan is well thought out as it seeks to invest in heritage preservation while helping developers through non-monetary means by streamlining the bureaucratic regulatory process.
There are several projects in the works, such as the former Ambassador Hotel, the former JEA / Independent Life Building and the Laura Street Trio, which can support the dynamic with a hopeful economic upswing.
The plan will help revitalize the inner city while preserving historic sites for us and future generations.
Dave Chauncey is an attorney with Alexander DeGance Barnett and Chairman of the Jacksonville Historical Society’s Historic Sites Committee.