Tenants haven't been told how long it will take for repairs to 42-year-old building.
Wells Fargo Center tenants were scrambling this week to find temporary office space around Jacksonville as management of the Downtown tower said the effects of Hurricane Irma incapacitated the structural operations.
Tenants weren’t told how long repairs would take but some were seeking three- to six-month leases of office space. The 42-year-old building at 1 Independent Drive is one of the Jacksonville Northbank skyline’s most prominent structures.
The center, north of the riverfront Jacksonville Landing, was closed Sept. 8 in advance of Hurricane Irma, which blew through the area with drenching rains Sunday and Monday, causing serious flooding Downtown and elsewhere.
A Sept. 13 letter to tenants from landlord Banyan Street Capital said its team and vendors were working around the clock to get the building back up and running.
“As of this morning, the JEA substation that feeds our building is still down and they do not have a specific ETA for the restoration. There is absolutely no power in the building and no generator power either,” the letter reads.
“We have a disaster recovery team onsite pumping water out of the basement of the building and the loading dock area that was flooded. The basement garage and basement level of the building are filled with mud that is being extracted and cleaned up as well.”
Banyan Street Capital explained in the letter that the basement contains the main electrical, life safety, air conditioning, elevator and telecommunications systems, and that all of those were affected by the flooding.
Banyan Street Capital said that as soon as it has access to those areas it will begin assessing the damage and working with JEA to begin repairs.
“The good news is that the disaster recovery process is moving along quickly so far,” it said.
JEA spokeswoman Gerri Boyce said Saturday power has been restored to all of Downtown. She said JEA was asked not to turn on power at the Well Fargo Center until repairs are made.
No access to building
Banyan Street as of Sept. 13 was not allowing access to the building.
“We have had a lot of people coming to the building to ask for permission to enter and run up and grab things from their offices. Please understand that there is no power, which means that it is completely dark in the stairwells, there is no ventilation, no life safety systems, no phones, the basement is covered in mud and is very slippery, etc.,” the letter reads.
It said the building is not safe and the landlord will not allow access to anyone at this point.
Banyan Street said it would reach out to tenants immediately when it can allow access.
It was sent by senior property manager Jane Reischman, who could not be reached by email or phone late Friday.
Anchor tenant Wells Fargo spokesman Michael Gray said Wells Fargo leases about six floors of the tower, which is 37 floors with 35 that are usable by tenants.
The closing has not affected the bank’s operations, he said, other than the branch in the lobby that will remain closed until the building reopens.
“We do have business continuity plans in place to manage that impact,” he said.
All of the other branches have reopened and most of the employees who work in the Wells Fargo Center are able to work remotely, he said.
Kevin Hyde, partner at Foley & Lardner on the 13th floor, said the law firm is moving over the weekend to the third floor at One Enterprise Center, two blocks from Wells Fargo Center.
“All of our files are stored electronically outside of Jacksonville, so we’ve been able to work remotely this week,” Hyde said.
Building systems 'wiped out'
He said Foley’s technology team is setting up IT equipment and services and furniture will be moved into the new space in preparation for being fully functional Monday, or at the latest, Tuesday.
Hyde said it’s his understanding that when the basement flooded, the building’s electrical system and elevator machinery was “wiped out.”
He said he plans to be allowed into the building on Monday to inspect the office, even though without air conditioning, the interior temperature is about 100 degrees.
Hyde also said staff members, having no idea the building would not reopen this week after the hurricane moved on, left behind personal items that they would like to retrieve.
As of Friday, the firm intended to eventually move out of its temporary office and reclaim its space at Wells Fargo Center when the building is repaired.
“I’m using the term ‘camping out a bit.’ I know good will come of this. I just don’t know what that good will be,” Hyde said.
Businesses on the move
The Pajcic & Pajcic law firm was moving its computers Friday afternoon from the 19th floor of Wells Fargo Center to the 14th floor at One Enterprise Center.
Seth Pajcic said rented furniture will be delivered to the temporary space and the firm will be fully operational early next week.
The River Club leases the top two floors. Spokeswoman Misty Skipper with club owner Gate Petroleum Co. said the club was waiting to hear from the property manager and she did not have a timeline to reopen the private dining and event venue.
Eric Davidson, spokesman for another major tenant, Regency Centers Corp., said the company is looking for continued updates from the property management team.
The building contains about 650,000 square feet of space.
Cushman & Wakefield Senior Director Bob Retherford said Friday his firm already is working to line up space for Wells Fargo Center tenants, but said the larger employers will face a difficult challenge in keeping their staff under one temporary roof.
“What I have been told is tenants are looking for temporary space in the three- to six-month range,” he said. “I don’t know if that means they will be out of the building that long or not.”
As of mid-afternoon Friday, Retherford said his company has offered space that requires little or no upfitting to three tenants for their operations.
Larger operations, he said will have to consider multiple locations and even have employees work remotely where possible.
Large or small, the most significant challenge tenants face is the duration of their temporary space needs.
“You can't just go by the available space because some of it may not be particularly adaptable to certain tenants and may require code work or something else be occupied,” Rutherford said.
“Some landlords are going to decline doing something of that short of time because they don't want to miss out on a better, more long-term opportunity. Some space just won’t be on the market for them,” he said.
Retherford anticipates that local commercial brokers will be working in partnership with the businesses looking for a temporary home.
“Certainly I think everyone on the brokerage side is trying to be helpful and accommodating to the businesses,” he said.
“We don’t see this as a windfall, but more of a helping hand for something that is almost a tragedy in terms of business. Hopefully we can make that happen and accommodate these people,” he said.
Preston Phillips, executive vice president of commercial broker Colliers International, said he began fielding inquiries as early as Thursday from Wells Fargo Center tenants.
“It picked up quite a bit this morning when people realized the building would be shut down longer than anticipated as they were trying to secure space and get back to some kind of recognizable business,” Phillips said Friday.
Phillips said there is ample space among the Downtown towers and in suburban commercial centers for all of the displaced tenants. The difficulty will be outfitting the space for work.
“There is adequate space, but the challenge will be in being able to set up and begin work,” Phillips said. “They won't be able to plug-and-play. Most of the space doesn’t have office furniture.”
Phillips said landlords he contacted generally are willing to work with the companies needing temporary space, even though their needs may be for a shorter lease term than landlords would otherwise accept.
“They are prepared to do a minimum of 30 days,” Phillips said. “The landlords in Downtown and in the suburbs are willing to assist and help these businesses get back on their feet again.”