by Glenn Tschimpke
The fate of three historically significant buildings downtown may be decided in a few weeks. If negotiations run smoothly, the long-vacant Bisbee Building, Florida Life Building and Old Florida National Bank could soon come under City ownership.
“The City is in final negotiations for the three buildings,” said City attorney Jason Teal.
Slightly over $3 million has been set aside to purchase the structures, which will be immediately placed back on the market. While the government doesn’t make it standard practice to delve into real estate resale, these particular buildings caught the attention of the Task Force on Historic Downtown Preservation and Revitalization when the owner applied for permits to demolish the structures. German owner Angela Schneider has tried to sell the properties for years, but the condition of the buildings and downtown economics failed to produce any solid buyers. Schneider then decided the property would be worth more sans structures, so she decided to raze them.
“Their incentives are all for tearing them down,” said City Council member Jim Overton, chair of the task force. “That’s why there are so many parking lots downtown.”
The task force reacted by seeking historic designation for the buildings, which would essentially block any demolition ambitions by Schneider. While the buildings have not yet received historic status, the deeds could soon transfer to the City.
City Council delved into the City’s risk management fund, which is used to pay for lawsuits against the City, when losses were less than expected over the last year. City Council’s Finance Committee has tentatively set aside $3,025,000 to purchase the buildings, a price the seller has agreed to.
“The buildings were assessed at $3.2 million,” said Schneider’s attorney, Paul Harden. “So she’s selling them for less than they were assessed for.”
Slapping the landmark status on the buildings has also been put on hold at Harden’s request, pending building sale. If the sale goes through, the City is expected to seek the status. If the sale does not, Schneider doesn’t want to be stuck with the restrictive historic landmark status, which limits renovations and precludes demolition.
If the City successfully purchases the trio, it will immediately place the buildings back on the market, conceivably with the landmark status and incentives to attract a buyer.
“The market may not be perfect right now, but these buildings contribute to the historic signature of downtown,” said Teal. “The City is, essentially, acting as a holding company.”
Overton and the rest of the task force want to attract a buyer who is willing to renovate the structures to preserve this particular historic pocket of downtown. If a federal historic landmark status is approved, certain incentives can be gained if the buildings are renovated. Local tax incentives could be thrown in to sweeten the deal. One drawback of refurbishing the corner of Laura and Forsyth streets is the lack of parking. Overton hinted that the decaying Center Theater on nearby Adams Street could be replaced by a parking garage.
Seemingly, all that remains is Council approval. It still needs to be addressed by the Council’s Finance Committee, which is expected to approve and forward it with to the full Council on Feb. 19.
“My assumption is there’s plenty of political will to pass it,” said Overton, throwing out names of those likely to give the bill a nod. “I think you have a core group who will go for it: Reggie Fullwood, Pat Lockett-Felder, Elaine Brown, Matt Carlucci, Gwen Yates and myself. I think we’ll have the 10 votes we need.”
The 10-story Bisbee Building was built in 1908-09 and was designed by Jacksonville architect Henry Klutho. It was the first reinforced concrete frame high rise in Jacksonville.
The 11-story Florida Life Building, also designed by Klutho, was built in 1911-12. For less than a year, it was the tallest building in town.
Built in 1905-06, the Old Florida National Bank — commonly known as the Marble Bank because of its marble facade — is the oldest of the three. It was designed by Edward H. Glidden and was originally half the size it is today. Its grand banking room was restored in 1978 to recapture its classical 1916 look.