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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 27, 200112:00 PM EST

Delaney: library site non-negotiable

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by: Bill Johnson

The four architects competing for the contract to build Jacksonville’s new downtown library are actually designing eight libraries, according to Mayor John Delaney.

Each firm has been instructed to present two designs of the $95 million library the City wants to construct on Hemming Plaza. One design, the mayor said, would assume that the Rhodes building would be demolished and that only the facades of the two smaller LaRose buildings would have to be included.

All three buildings have the City’s Historic Preservation Commission’s potential local landmark designation.

The second design asks the architects to either build around the controversial buildings, or include the facades of all three in their design.

Delaney said the City left a lot of discretion to the architects on the second design because at least two of the firms were ready to drop out of the competition if the City insisted on incorporating the buildings. Even just the facade of the Rhodes building is a sticking point.

“Actually, we had a couple that sort of hinted at that early,” said Delaney. “They were saying, ‘If you insist on it, we can’t make it work and we’re not going to put it in a library.’” He said the architects are concerned about staking their reputations on a design that has to incorporate the old structures.

Those two firms, likely, will simply design the library around the three buildings, Delaney said. To make up for the smaller floor plate, he said, they’ll likely add another floor to their designs. The other two have basically said they would keep the facades in their second designs.

“They’re going to go on two tracks until we can get a definitive answer from a regulatory standpoint of what we’re going to do with the buildings,” said Delaney. The process could take “some time” if the Historic Preservation Commission decides it wants “to fight it all the way.”

The mayor said the commission is an independent entity: “Maybe more independent than we would like.”

The public debate over the library and the historic buildings has been good democracy, Delaney said, but he added that he would be disappointed if Jacksonville spends $95 million on a new signature building that becomes a jigsaw puzzle piece built around three marginally historic structures.

Despite that possible disappointment, he said, the City is committed to that site and, jigsaw shape or not, “that’s where we’re going.”

“I think we would wind up delaying for years if we committed to another site now, and that was studied pretty thoroughly,” said Delaney. The current debate has already delayed the project and threatens to push the completion date back from the summer of 2003.

Many sites had been considered early in the process, the mayor said. Among them was the site of the current library, the courthouse, the Osborn Center, LaVilla, and the shipyards. He said the parking lots on the other side of Main Street from the current site were also considered. Many people have held that site up as a better location that has fewer problems and could conceivably open up the center of downtown.

“We’ve been through a lot of variations,” said Delaney, “and I don’t see anything that’s going to change that. And I don’t see that on the City Council either. They like that site. Buildings or no, they think that ought to be there. That’s where we’re going.” He cited the proximity to the Skyway, the frontage on Main Street, as well as the entrance on Hemming Plaza as three major pluses for the site.

Of course, the legal mechanics of making it happen still have to be negotiated. Delaney is awaiting word from the City’s general counsel on what exactly the City can do if the Historic Preservation Commission continues pursuit of local landmark status for the Rhodes and LaRose buildings.

“The way I understand the process . . .” he said. “If the commission says ‘No, we’re putting this status on it and you can’t tear them down,’ then where it goes is to the City Council. Then where it goes is to the State over in Tallahassee. Some department over there. In other words, I will not have final say.”

Even if the City Council rejects the commission’s local landmark bid, he said, the commission could still possibly appeal to the state level.

The administration put a request before the Historic Preservation Commission last month for it to delay pursuit of the local landmark status until late October, when the architects come back with their designs. The commission agreed to postpone action for one month, until its next meeting, when it would again vote on whether to continue postponing action.

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