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A series of holes in the middle of the Barnett Bank building was created by a previous developer as a demolition chute to help clear debris. Developer Steve Atkins wants to fix the holes as part of his plan for the building.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Nov. 30, 201512:00 PM EST

Inside the dilapidated buildings that developers see filling a big hole in Downtown

by: David Chapman

There’s a hole in the middle of the Barnett Bank building.

Seventeen holes, actually. One right after the next, starting on the second floor up to the 18th. The alignment creates an almost hypnotizing pattern for those who peer upward through the historic Downtown building.

The holes weren’t for show, though. They had purpose for a former developer. Instead of piping out debris through windows, the thought was to push it down the holes and have it come crashing down into a pile.

The idea worked. The plan for the building didn’t. It was scrapped, another stop in a series of starts.

When developer Steve Atkins bought the building and the neighboring Laura Street Trio, the debris collected from all the floors above was still there.

“He was chest deep in it,” said Lisa Goodrich, director of marketing and community engagement for Atkins’ development team, SouthEast Group.

But instead of keeping the holes and putting an elevator in their place, Atkins wants to fill them in and save the space. Much like he does the trio of buildings across Laura Street.

“Most people previously only saw value in the Barnett,” said Goodrich. “For the Trio, it was ‘tear them down and put up a parking garage.’”

Saving all four buildings was Atkins’ driving motivation, she said.

He’s had starts and stops of his own, dating with pitches as far back to former Mayor John Peyton’s administration.

Since purchasing the buildings in mid-2013, there’s been no movement. Atkins didn’t return a couple of calls in the past week to comment for this story.

He now has a financial partner with deep pockets in the Las Vegas-based Molasky Group of Cos.

The plan hasn’t changed since last year. It will cost a little more than $77 million — and need help in the courtroom settling a foreclosure action and from City Hall to come to fruition.

If it does, he’ll be able to fill in those holes within the Barnett — and the hole within the heart of Downtown that’s been vacant for decades.

Making the Barnett whole

The first floor of the Barnett sits open, vacant and airy.

The debris dropped through the gaping hole is gone. The empty space largely has been cleaned and used for small events like weddings and private parties. Soon enough, the walls could echo the sounds of commerce.

Chase Bank has committed to the first two floors, although Atkins won’t openly discuss the banking giant. He wants the institution to be able to announce on its own terms.

What now stands as a cordoned off area near the entrance will become the next brick-and-mortar spot for Vagabond Coffee. Old safe deposit boxes from the basement will be used as the décor.

It’s a basement that’s more like catacombs –– dark, damp and dreary. Once restored, it will serve as storage areas for building tenants.

For now, it’s simply a dead area with little life except for the sound of women’s high heels clicking a floor above on Adams Street.

The flights of stairs show evidence of the building’s age. Small piles of peeled, flaky paint rest along the majority of each step leading upward toward potential.

Floor after floor of bricks and windows could become built-out commercial space and more than 100 residential units. Lofts and one-bedroom units are the plan, although the top floor possibly could end up with two-bedroom spots.

For now, the penthouse is more like a greenhouse.

Picturesque views of Downtown and the St. Johns River are evident, but so too is standing water and vegetation that’s accumulated mostly along the southeast part of the floor.

Water creeps through that part of the roof the most, but not from the many open windows passersby might see when they look at the building.

Those windows are open on purpose. A former developer installed them wrong, said Goodrich, and leaving them closed would cause pressure to blow them out.

It’s one of the many quirks Atkins and his partners will tackle if they’re able to come to an agreement with the city about public financing and parking.

The deal would support the four-building renovations and adjoining new structure. And while restoring the Barnett is a challenge, it pales in comparison to the work — and the state — of the Trio.

A heightened challenge

A short walk across the street leads to the entrance of the Marble Bank building.

A clean, grand ballroom of a floor plan is what welcomes one inside.

The former bank has some telltale signs of its history. Wall-carved water stations at the entrances were used by customers who used fountain pens to do their business. And a line of dips in the floor shows the precise spots where countless numbers of people stood in line waiting for tellers.

Bank customers would be replaced by hungry guests and their hosts of The Bullbriar restaurant once complete. The restaurant is planning to pay homage to the fountains by naming a signature drink after them.

Downstairs will be a speakeasy where vaults that haven’t been opened in decades now stand. That includes the private vault of Jessie Ball duPont. What’s inside?

“We’re hoping $8 million,” said Goodrich, with a laugh.

That’s the amount the developers are seeking from the city to launch the projects.

Below and above are corridors that attach to the Marble Bank’s sister buildings, the Florida Life and Bisbee buildings.

The Marble Bank easily is in the best condition of the three — the Bisbee the worst.

A grand staircase welcomes those who enter the Bisbee, the site of a planned urban grocery. But to the side of that staircase is a gaping hole that shows a floor filled deep with wood and debris.

Up those cracked, broken steps is a spot that would become the conference area of the planned Marriott hotel housed mainly in the Florida Life building.

For now, that bombed-out looking building is a series of historic tile and stairs. Most useful materials have been stripped long ago.

Crumbled concrete and debris crunch under footsteps on the way up flight after flight, leading to the eighth floor. Goodrich stops here for a reason.

The floor would house three rooms of the new hotel, but it also would lead to a rooftop bar overlooking a main piece of Downtown.

“Laura and Adams,” she said, pointing out a window. “The Main and Main of the urban core.”

That rooftop bar would be part of the new construction for the $77 million overall project.

Atkins and company see the uses of each building, each spot and each floor of the sites.

They’d like to fill the heart of the urban core with vibrancy and activity. But to do that, they’ll need some help, enough to fill in their plan’s own holes.

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