Preservation of downtown landmarks key for developer

Preservation of downtown landmarks key for developer
Nearly 1,000 windows were reconditioned and reinstalled on the top floors of the Barnett Bank Building downtown.
Steve Atkins, principal and managing director of SouthEast Development Group

Steve Atkins, principal and managing director of SouthEast Development Group

Steve Atkins doesn’t mind giving credit where credit is due.

In fact, the longtime Miramar resident is quick to say the success of his latest venture – rehabilitating the Barnett National Bank Building and the Laura Street Trio (Florida National Bank Building, the Bisbee Building, and the Florida Life Building) in downtown Jacksonville – will have a lot to do with his partners in the project: The City of Jacksonville, the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA), and Danis Construction.

“Unfortunately, one of the things Jacksonville has not done exceptionally well in the past is be a very good steward of these types of historic properties, which is a key part of the fabric that makes downtowns unique,” said Atkins, principal and managing director of SouthEast Development Group. “I felt that was something we could definitely capitalize on and improve.”

A lot of Atkins’ earlier projects were greenfield development, but some were adaptive, re-use, preservation stuff, he said. “That’s where my passion lies, and I want to do that here in our downtown. I’m old enough to remember what our downtown used to be like. I think I got my first suit as a little kid at Levy-Wolf downtown. It’s important for me, as a resident, to do this.”

This downtown restoration project is not the first time Atkins has put his money where his mouth is. In 2013, Atkins was awarded the Historic Preservation Commission’s award for the two-year restoration of the 1901 Greenleaf & Crosby Clock at the corner of Laura and Adams Streets. He donated the cost and directed the rebuilding of the clock’s infrastructure and its re-installation.

Getting his hands on the four buildings was not a quick or easy process. There was a long period of time where the buildings were tied up by equity houses and banks in a portfolio with other properties, Atkins explained. The other properties were eventually sold or auctioned off, and the portfolio dwindled down to the Barnett Building and the Laura Street Trio, which could not be separated in a sale.

“It was a protracted effort and a lot of negotiation had to happen before they were willing to make a disposition of the properties in a way we could make it work. You have to have a willing and able city government to work with you. We went through three administrations and, fortunately, the current administration is business minded and the mayor made a commitment early on to Downtown. It’s been a great partnership working with the City,” he said.

Atkins noted that, during the period of acquiring and holding the properties, there was an absence, or a vacuum, within city government with regards to specific downtown development. “There wasn’t a DIA, it didn’t have a director, it had no money, so that was a real disconnect, a real challenge,” he said. “I have to give a lot of credit to Aundra Wallace [who was named CEO of the DIA in 2013]. He and I have worked together for many years on this project. He’s a great partner and willing to stick through the tough times.”

When Atkins began seriously looking at the project in 2009, the Barnett Building had been vacant nearly 10 years, the Laura Street Trio since the late 1980s/early 1990s, he said. “They had not been serviced well and, in many cases, were open to the elements, so there was a lot of deterioration and things have transpired over the years. You have to take that into account as you address how to rehabilitate them and put them back into service,” said Atkins.

Describing himself as detail-oriented, with a hands-on approach to his role, Atkins is on site every day, but acknowledged “at the same time, I let people around me do their job. I feel my role is to empower them and support them in the best way I can. It makes me an effective developer, and them an effective contractor, and that’s a win for everybody. That allows us to work well together, stay on track, and ultimately be successful.

“The reality is, the developer is only as good as their team, and I have to give a lot of credit to Danis Construction. They have more expertise in this field than anybody else in the local market. There is extensive planning that goes into these projects before we ever mobilize, from safety to execution,” he said.

Danis Construction began interior, structural, and window replacement work on the 18-story, 156,744-square-foot building in late October 2017. The renovation project for the 92-year-old Barnett Building at 112 W. Adams St., is ahead of schedule, according to Atkins.

“As of today, we’re down from the 18th to around the 11th or 12th floor reconditioning and reinstalling windows; we put on a new roof, and they are framing as they go, so all the apartment floors are ready to be dry-walled. It’s moving at a very, very fast pace,” he said in an interview early in June. “We’re on a tight schedule, very regimented, but are running probably 30 days ahead of schedule.”

Rendering of a proposed six-level parking garage with retail fronting Laura Street.

Rendering of a proposed six-level parking garage with retail fronting Laura Street.

Bringing tenants to downtown

Atkins expects to turn over space in December to the first tenant. The University of North Florida – Atkins’ alma mater – announced in April it would lease approximately 13,000 square feet of space in the Barnett Building for a satellite campus. The UNF Coggin College of Business will occupy space on the fourth and fifth floors of the building and is expecting to commence classes in January 2019.

Although not officially announced, Atkins said JPMorgan Chase & Co. will have their North Florida headquarters, their largest flagship branch, on the first floor of the Barnett Building, as will Vagabond Coffee. Atkins is also negotiating with a company in health and wellness, in addition to others looking for commercial office space.

When completed, the former Barnett Bank building will add 108 studio, one- and two-bedroom loft apartments to the urban core. Ranging from 570 to 1,500 square feet, the average unit will be about 700 square feet, Atkins said.

A 600-space, $11-million parking garage also is part of the project and will be built on property at 28 W. Forsyth St. next to the Laura Street Trio.

Atkins said they will mobilize at the Laura Street Trio site this summer, but right now Danis is staged and operating on the Trio site for the Barnett project. “They are also ramping up the start of the parking deck, so to have three sites mobilized at one time is challenging,” he said. “In an urban site, people are constantly moving around.”

The Barnett Building will be finished up in early spring 2019, with the parking deck within a few months after that, and the Trio will be completed in summer 2020, he said.

The Laura Street Trio will include a Marriott, a luxury boutique programmed around the historic context of the Bisbee Building, and the Florida Life Building, Atkins said. The Florida Life Building, also known as the Marble Bank Building. will be the site for Bullbriar, a restaurant and bar. The Bisbee Building will also have a market, a grocery, on the ground floor.

The JAX Chamber Board of Governors went on hard-hat tour of the Barnett Building on March 8, as part of its focus this year on downtown development.

The JAX Chamber Board of Governors went on hard-hat tour of the Barnett Building on March 8, as part of its focus this year on downtown development.

Restoring downtown’s glory

In early March, the JAX Chamber toured the project at the Barnett Building.

“The Barnett is huge for downtown – both with what the project itself brings, but also the buzz and momentum created by breathing life back into a historic building that’s been vacant for decades,” said Debbie Buckland, JAX Chamber chair-elect, and Jacksonville market president for BB&T. “The tour was a great opportunity for business leaders to get a sneak peek at the renovations inside the Barnett and understand the investment needed to pull off a project of this magnitude.”

Atkins agrees. “It’s good for Jacksonville. I feel that it’s a privilege to be part of this project because it’s important to our city. I’m excited about the changes that are happening to our downtown collectively,” he said.

For Atkins, the most exciting aspect in his projects is the construction phase. “Seeing it put back together is really fun. Projects like this have wrinkles along the way – you’re fixing things that are falling apart – but I like seeing it come back together. It’s a creative process so it’s gratifying from the respect it’s seeing something that was truly grand at one time and very, very special to a lot of people, seeing it fall away into a sad state of disrepair, then the process of bringing it back to life and putting it back together to its old glory and seeing it used in a whole new way is what’s exciting to me and what appeals to me.”

Even while managing this massive project which, collectively, will cost around $90 million, Atkins is already considering what lies ahead.

“I am looking at several other sites downtown, a variety of potential projects, some office, some mixed-used, heavy on the multi-family side,” he shared. “There is a tremendous market right now in the residential category downtown. We have received a tremendous response on the Barnett, and we feel like we can capitalize on that and create some additional opportunities. I’m also looking at a project in Atlanta and some other Jacksonville sites.”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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