National Historic Register status helps put downtown Jacksonville on map

National Historic Register status helps put downtown Jacksonville on map
Flanked by the Barnett Bank Building, left, and the Jacobs Jewelers Building, the 1901 Greenleaf and Crosby Clock made by Seth Thomas Clock Co. is one of two objects listed in the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District inventory. The other is the Hemming Park Confederate Monument.

Another “district” was added last year to downtown Jacksonville’s growing list of named places. Joining the Spark District, the Cathedral District and the Sports District is the Downtown Jacksonville Historic District.

Approved May 2, 2016 by the United States Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, portions of downtown Jacksonville are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The documentation indicates the area is “roughly bounded by North Pearl Street, Beaver Street, North Catherine Street and Independent Drive/Courthouse Drive,” about 56 blocks or 158 acres.

The project to inventory and document 179 contributing and 46 non-contributing resources built between 1901 and 1965 was funded by the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA), which paid historic research specialists $50,000 to put the paperwork together and make the case for a downtown historic district.

While local historians, such as Wayne Wood of Riverside, have long decried the destruction of structures which typify the city’s rich architectural history, it wasn’t until San Marco resident Oliver Barakat served as DIA board chair in 2014 that a historic designation gained momentum.

“I’ve always been very distressed that historic buildings downtown kept getting demolished, and learned that at one time over 600 historic structures downtown had been torn down,” said Kay Ehas of Riverside. “I believe that if it weren’t for that, Jacksonville would have been unique among big Florida cities.”

A study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found Jacksonville still has the most buildings in Florida over 50 years old. “We have these unique assets that the city has never really celebrated, but instead sees them as an impediment to development and not part of the solution. Until we really start recognizing, celebrating and lifting awareness in the community, we’re going to continue to demolish these things and no one is going to blink an eye,” said Barakat, a senior vice president at CBRE, Inc. and current DIA board member.

“People were frustrated about not getting any traction for the historic buildings in downtown Jacksonville,” Ehas said, “so when Oliver was DIA Board Chair in 2014, I asked ‘Can we do something about trying to protect the historic structures that are left?’ He was very open to it and asked me to do some research on the pros and cons of National Register status.”

Ehas discovered a geographic area can become a historic local district, which is more regulated and restrictive but only addresses the exterior of structures, while listing on the National Register includes both interior and exterior, with a 20 percent investment tax credit as the carrot.

In addition, National Register designation doesn’t require City Council approval, but a local district would, and also requires property owners to vote for it.

Making the case for national designation

Barakat thought the way to go was to apply for a National Historic District, so in early 2014 they enlisted the help of Joel McEachin and Lisa Sheppard, members of the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, to help determine the geographic possibilities and create a presentation to the DIA board.

“We codified it into a resolution, and intellectually made the case for a historic district downtown,” said Barakat, then the resolution went into a “black hole” for a while. “It took a fair amount of behind-the-scenes advocacy to make sure the Planning Department and DIA were working in tandem to get it done; once the consultant was hired, it still required someone to keep it on track.”

Barakat said approval by the DIA, which is responsible for the revitalization of downtown Jacksonville, legitimized the project. “They gave the effort muscle, money and city sponsorship,” he said.

There is no down side to having a historic district, said Ehas, but noted some opposed it.

“There may be some who see it as a step toward a local district one day, which has more regulatory hurdles,” Barakat said. “There may be some who just don’t care for historic buildings and don’t want awareness because awareness builds advocacy for preservation efforts. They want to do whatever they want whenever they want, and not create an appreciation for these buildings.”

Preserving history one building at a time

Ehas and Barakat agreed it’s surprising how a little bit of effort, such as speaking up at a public meeting, can make a difference in saving a building.

Sometimes, however, it takes a much bigger effort, such as the Cowford Chophouse, a massive renovation project Barakat said is a turning point in shifting the tide from demolition to renovation and repurposing.

“The community’s equation has always been ‘if it costs more to renovate than to build a new structure, then it’s not worth it’ but Jacques Klempf is spending ridiculous amounts of money showing the community that it’s not about that equation, it’s about something that’s scarce and about value,” Barakat said, referring to the restaurant under construction in the century-old Bostwick Building at the corner of Bay and Ocean Streets.

The price tag to maintain the historic integrity of the building is nearly $6.5 million, but Klempf has been quoted as saying it’s been a labor of love.

“You can overspend on a piece of property, but the owner and community will value it equal to what they spent because it’s something that’s truly unique,” said Barakat. “Klempf changed the equation, and so did Marcus Lemonis with Sweet Pete’s; he could have built a much cheaper building next door but it would not have had the same value.”

Barakat said projects like those and designation as a National Historic District has “codified to the world we’ve got more historic buildings than any other city in the state. The Jacksonville Visitors Bureau should be shouting this to the world. We all know how popular history is with tourists.”

“I feel more hopeful than I ever have that the community who cares most about downtown development appears to be embracing these historic structures,” Ehas concluded.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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