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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jul. 26, 200512:00 PM EST

Downtown's subterranean secret: the tunnel

by: Beth Slater

by Beth Slater

Staff Writer

Unlike Atlanta, with its shopping district below ground and Washington, D.C., with its subway system, it’s hard to find any place in Jacksonville where underground activity can flourish.

Jacksonville’s flat, low landscape keeps almost all traffic on terra firma and above. One exception is “the tunnel,” an old bank vault connecting the Atlantic Bank building, Center Square Garage and old Sun Trust building, all on Forsyth near Hogan St.

Finding offices located in the tunnel can be difficult. An address might match that of the building upstairs and say nothing of basement access. Two businesses are currently located underground and employees say it’s difficult to find, but they like their locations.

Attorney James Nipper has kept an office in the tunnel since at least 1995, according to his secretary Bobbie Clark. Prior to that, his office was on the 15th floor of the old Sun Trust building, now called the 200 W. Forsyth building.

Clark said she doesn’t mind the subterranean situation.

“It doesn’t bother me. There’s not a lot of loud, obnoxious traffic. People walk by, but I like it,” she said.

Nipper was unavailable for comment but Clark said he likes the office in what is an out-of-the-way location.

“He’s happy; he’s not apt to change,” she said.

The folks at Benny’s Sandwich Shop feel same way. Benny’s has been in the tunnel for 20 years and the owners don’t plan on moving any time soon.

“We’ve had chances to (move), but we don’t want to expand. We want to stay here,” said Tracy Bateh, daughter of owners Benny and Sara Bateh.

Benny Bateh said the Atlantic Bank building’s owners sought him out when few restaurants were located Downtown.

“The people who own this building are the Steins. They built Regency Square. They renovated the building and told me to come down. I was sweating, I didn’t know if I’d do any business. But we have three buildings to draw from,” said Benny. “People were waiting on me to open. There were no sandwich shops downtown in those days.”

Tracy, like Clark, said new delivery people and vendors usually have trouble finding the shop, but eventually find their way.

Celeste MacDonald, senior property manager for Urbana Realty Advisers and the 200 W. Forsyth building, said many of the offices in the tunnel have been vacant for about a year, but the management group is currently negotiating with one potential tenant.

The 200 W. Forsyth building is 30 years old, but the tunnel dates to the 1930s, MacDonald said.

The tunnel was built so that money could be taken from the bank to the vault at another location without using the street, Benny Bateh said.

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