The Jacksonville City Council approved $1.2 million in emergency funding Jan. 11 for Pece of Mind Environmental Inc. to complete the demolition of the unfinished Berkman Plaza II high-rise Downtown.
The 15-1 vote follows months of delays caused in part by a payment dispute between Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization LLC and Pece of Mind.
City Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes said approval of Ordinance 2022-0047 would allow the city Building Codes Adjustment Board to move on nuisance issues at its Jan. 13 meeting.
Hughes said that would give the city due process to proceed with the planned implosion of the 500 E. Bay St. structure.
Mayor Lenny Curry requested the Council vote on the legislation Jan. 11 as an emergency to address what the administration considers a safety issue. Hughes said the building was weakened by the Pece of Mind to prepare it for the implosion.
“The City of Jacksonville considers the condition of the Berkman Plaza II structure to be an immediate threat to the life, safety and welfare of property and citizens located near and around the structure warranting an emergency appropriation of funds necessary to pay the costs for demolition of the building without further delay,” the bill states.
In a Jan. 6 letter, Pece of Mind President Steve Pece said a contract dispute with Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization halted preparations for the implosion.
He also outlined safety concerns with the Berkman in the event of extreme weather.
Demolition of the Berkman began last summer. In August, Pece of Mind halted a manual tear-down because of structural and safety concerns and sought city approval for an implosion.
In a subsequent letter Jan. 10, Pece said his company recorded a construction lien on the Berkman II parcel for $1,574,560.22 and could end the contract if the account is not brought current.
Pece told Hughes the price could be locked in if the implosion is scheduled before Feb. 25. Pece estimates in the letter it will cost $1,114,000 to complete the implosion before insurance costs.
Plans for imploding the building have been postponed three times since October, the latest on Jan. 8.
‘We are exposed’
Council members said the decision was a matter of putting public safety before private property rights.
“There comes a point where private property rights run up against public safety and we’re there,” Council member Rory Diamond said. “This is a dangerous building. You don’t have to look very far down (the) Florida coast to see what happens when a building is neglected this long and dangerous things happen.”
A condominium in Surfside collapsed in June killing 98 people.
Diamond agreed with city attorneys that, given the Downtown development market and the likely value of the riverfront property, the city should be able to collect on its lien.
PB Riverfront Revitalization of Jacksonville LLC, a company controlled by the developer, bought the Berkman II on April 21 for $5.503 million.
City General Counsel Jason Teal told the Council that the city could foreclosure on the property to recoup the $1.2 million, if necessary.
Council member Matt Carlucci said he is worried about the city’s liability if property or persons are injured given the city’s knowledge of the building’s condition.
“What would we do in two days — and this is not an unlikely happening — if it were to collapse and had done nothing? I guarantee you there’d be a lawsuit slapped on the city and everybody in sight,” Carlucci said. “We are exposed.”
Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson voted against the bill.
She said the emergency legislation was interjecting the city into a contract dispute between the property owner and Pece of Mind.
Council member Randy White was absent for the vote.
Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization says it has plans to replace the 15-year-old Berkman shell with a mixed-use residential and hotel high-rise.
Construction on the structure stopped in 2007 after the collapse of a parking garage that killed one and injured others.
Beeler cites insurance
Park Beeler, the managing member of the Berkman II ownership group, told the Council it was not the payment dispute with Pece of Mind but acquiring additional liability insurance needed to protect surrounding structures that caused the most recent delay.
He said Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization would have the insurance within a few days which would allow the private ownership to continue with the implosion.
But Beeler’s comments did not convince Hughes or the Council.
“Caught in the balance of this contract dispute is a threat to public safety that, if we continue to disengage from the dispute and don’t do anything, we end up with months and months more of this potentially dangerous situation,” Hughes said.