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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jul. 15, 202106:00 PM EST

Ambassador Hotel design approved by Downtown Development Review Board

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The Augustine Development Group project will have 100 rooms, a restaurant and lounge.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

The Downtown Development Review Board on July 15 approved the exterior design for AXIS Hotels LLC’s estimated $17.6 million renovation of the historic Ambassador Hotel.

The board voted 5-0 to grant AXIS final design approval for what the developer says will be a 100-room TRYP by Wyndham hotel in the 98-year-old building at 420 N. Julia St.

The hotel also will have a restaurant and lounge.

Bryan Greiner, president of AXIS parent company Augustine Development Group LLC, said the restaurant will be a “SoHo concept” with an “industrial vibe.”

Greiner said the lounge will be a small speakeasy and wine cellar.

The restaurant will be operated by Doral-based Victory Hospitality LLC owner Mark Mughabghab. 

The hotel will have a meeting space and gym.

Before the vote, board members congratulated the AXIS team for its “perseverance” working through regulations and delays on the Ambassador project, which was first proposed in July 2018.

“I’ve seen it for years and years in disrepair and I think this is a great project. Good luck,” board member Craig Davisson said.

Board members Matt Brockelman, J. Brent Allen, Frederick Jones and Joseph Loretta were absent for the vote.

Room count reduced

In a report released July 8, DDRB staff recommended the board approve the design that will not change the overall look of the hotel that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

“Due to the Historic classification of the building the facade of the existing structure is not being changed,” the report says.

The National Park Service, which regulates the restoration of buildings designated national historic places, approved the Ambassador project and awarded AXIS Hotels a certificate of appropriateness, according to the staff report.

The Ambassador Hotel was built in 1923.

The final room count and floor plans will be determined by the state and federal historic design standards. AXIS originally planned a 127-room hotel.

Cyndy Trimmer,  Driver, McAfee, Hawthorne & Diebenow partner attorney and AXIS representative, told the board that the State Historic Preservation Office and park service requested the hotel’s historic hallway corridors and door openings be restored to their original look. 

Handrails and fixtures also will be restored.

Trimmer said the final corridor layout would impact the number of rooms, but AXIS’ redevelopment agreement with the city for the project requires a minimum of 100.

The interior design plans received conditional approval from the state and park service, but still need the final OK, she said. 

The Ambassador Hotel was built in 1923 for $300,000. In 1924 it was described as “Jacksonville’s first big downtown apartment building,” according to the staff report. 

It was renamed the Ambassador Hotel in 1955 and received national historic designation in 1983.

Project timeline

AXIS told city officials it will complete the Ambassador’s renovation and restoration by Dec. 31, 2022. 

Downtown Investment Authority Director of Downtown Real Estate Development Steve Kelley said July 9 that AXIS secured financing for the project by June 30, meeting the deadline set by the DIA board to bring the project’s contract with the city out of default.

The DIA board voted 7-0 on June 16 to give AXIS until June 30 to close on a $9 million mortgage the company was negotiating with Direct Lending Partners of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

The developer must begin the project by July 31 to keep its $1.5 million grant from the city’s Downtown Historic Preservation and Revitalization Trust Fund.

The Mayor’s Budget Review Committee voted 7-0 July 12 to file legislation with City Council to authorize the extension of the development agreement.

If Council agrees with the DIA’s request to consider the bill as a one-cycle emergency, it could be approved by Aug. 10.

Augustine Development Group LLC plans to redevelop and restore three designated historic buildings in a two-block area of Downtown’s North Core. 

The projects include the Ambassador and mixed-use, multifamily projects at the Independent Life tower at 233 W. Duval St. and Central National Bank Building at 404 N. Julia St.

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