Landmark hotel, adjacent property to offer apartments, retail

Landmark hotel, adjacent property to offer apartments, retail
The former Ambassador Hotel, shown here in 1927, has been purchased by a St. Augustine developer and will be renovated to serve again as a hotel under the La Quinta Inns and Suites brand. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society)

In just a few years, the Ambassador Hotel will reach centennial status and, as befitting a historic landmark, is slated to undergo extensive rehabilitation to re-open as a 127-room La Quinta Inns and Suites, according to a release issued by Augustine Development Group.

Axis Hotels, LLC, an affiliate of a St. Augustine-based developer, purchased the 61,000-square-foot hotel building, along with a vacant building at 404 N. Julia Street. The combined 1.5-acre property was bought for $5.4 million in July 2018 and the Downtown Investment Authority approved a $6.4 million incentive package in September, which was approved by City Council Jan. 22, 2019.

Originally built in 1923 for $300,000 as the 310 West Church Street Apartments, the six-story brick building was completely rented before it was finished, according to information from the Jacksonville Historical Society. It was built as part of the Jacksonville Renaissance that followed the Great Fire of 1901. The building’s name incorporated the address in keeping with the policy of the Adair Realty and Trust Company, which commissioned it.

“After the Great Fire of 1901, downtown was an empty canvas and architects, builders, and entrepreneurs from all over the country came to Jacksonville to get a piece of the action,” said Wayne Wood, Riverside resident and historian. “Now 75 percent that were built during that decade are gone; every one that is still left is precious.” 

According to documentation from the Jacksonville Historical Preservation Commission, the hotel was a good example of the Beaux Arts style, popular from 1900 to 1930. “Overall, it’s a nice classical 1920s building. It’s built in an H shape, so each of the 50 apartments had a corner room,” Wood noted. “The hotel has a lot of interesting architectural features, and while one would not call it the most significant architectural specimen in downtown, it’s a handsome design worthy of saving.” 

 In 1947, the apartments were converted to the Hotel Southland, then briefly called the Three-Ten Hotel. The building’s address was changed to 420 N. Julia Street when the front entrance was moved from Church Street after World War II, and it became the Griner Hotel, 1949-1954. It acquired the name Ambassador Hotel in 1955.

Around the time it was turned into a low-rent, single-room occupancy-by-the-
week hotel, the Ambassador was added to U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The hotel was condemned in 1998 after being cited for code violations discovered during a crack cocaine raid, but overall was considered to be in fair condition when the City passed an ordinance in 2004 designating the building as a Landmark Site, having satisfied six of the seven criteria for historic designation.

“I’m fairly excited about this because it was condemned in 1998 and I don’t think it has been lived in since; residents were required to move out and it was boarded up,” said Wood. “Not only are they re-using a fairly old, large building, it’s close to the courthouses, state attorney’s office, City Hall, an ideal location for new development away from the river and will generate new life in that area. It would be hard to imagine there won’t be a good market for it.” 

Wood said repurposing the hotel would be the first step in attracting more commercial vitality in that quadrant of downtown. “It’s a very fragile part of downtown, mostly parking lots and buildings that don’t attract people, customers. We need more people living downtown to substantiate a grocery store and more restaurants and street vitality,” he said. 

“Old buildings require special care and a certain enthusiastic desire to utilize a work of architectural art rather than demolish it. Having a company with a track record, knowing what they are getting into to rehabilitate it to adaptive re-use is just wonderful. We have so few historic buildings left downtown,” Wood said. 

Axis Hotels also plans to demolish the vacant three-story office building next door to the Ambassador Hotel on Julia Street. Built in 1926, “it was modernized in the late 1950s, covered over with panels to make it look more modern and in doing so, they removed what little character was left,” said Wood.

Once this property is demolished, the developer plans to build a 200-unit apartment building with up to 15,000 square feet of retail space, collectively called The Annex. Ancillary uses, such as an activated rooftop are included in the plans, as well as commercial space set aside to serve as a satellite campus for St. Augustine Youth Services. Additionally, 25 percent of the apartments will be available for workforce housing for individuals who earn less than 80 percent of the area median income, which was reported as $58,709 in 2017.

The DIA’s incentive package includes a $1.5 million Downtown Historic Preservation and Revitalization Trust Fund grant, which would not be issued until a certificate of occupancy is issued for the 127-room hotel, which has an estimated construction cost of $15 million. 

Additionally, a $4.9 million Recapture Enhanced Value (REV) grant would be applied toward The Annex, an estimated $38.1 million apartment building. The grant would be payable from the revenues of the Northbank Tax Increment District, which represents an amount equal to 75 percent of new county taxes on the property for a period of 15 years on the apartments and new parking deck to serve the project’s parking needs.

Axis is collaborating with Jacksonville-based The Vestcor Companies and has 45 months to complete construction of the multi-family and office components.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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