Downtown’s Laura Street Trio closer to being revived

Downtown’s Laura Street Trio closer to being revived
Modern view of the Laura Street Trio, from the Wayne W Wood Collection, 2006.

A cluster of Downtown’s most historic and visible buildings is a couple steps closer to a new life, one burgeoning with activity.

Preservationists have described the Laura Street Trio as, collectively, the most endangered historical buildings in Jacksonville. The trio includes the Florida National Bank Building, the Bisbee Building and the Florida Life Building, built at the turn of the last century. The buildings sit at the corner of Laura and Forsyth streets and each was built just a handful of years after the Great Fire of 1901 razed many of Jacksonville’s buildings to the ground.

City leadership has been eager to see the buildings revitalized and put to good use attracting residents and a workforce downtown, with all the necessary entertainment and commercial services such a workforce needs. 

City Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) CEO Lori Boyer said in mid-April that legislation was being drafted for approval by City Council that would grant Southeast Group, a local developer, a multi-million-dollar incentive package for adaptive restoration of the historic and highly visible landmark. In March, the DIA Board unanimously approved offering Southeast a $24.7 million package for what is estimated to be a $70.4 million restoration project. The package includes an interest-only $5.3 million loan that would become due in a decade, and $19.4 million in forgivable loans.

Boyer said she hoped to see the legislation drafted in May and ready to take to the council; the Trio is one of the projects that City leaders have most wanted to see completed.

“They’re centrally located,” Boyer said of the buildings. “I’m sitting here in my office in City Hall and I can see from my open windows straight through to (the trio) from where I sit. That’s an example of the impact it has on offices throughout downtown. Not only are they significant landmarks that will restore character, but in the meantime, the fact that they are deteriorating and vacant is a blight on downtown. It’s a big deal.”

According to local preservationist Wayne Wood’s book, “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future,” the three buildings are exquisitely configured, with the two-story Neo-Classical bank framed by the two “ultra-modern” (for the time) skyscrapers, which ascend from the street corner. Their prominent place at the intersection of downtown Jacksonville’s two busiest streets makes them one of the most unique architectural groupings in the South. The three are also emblematic of Jacksonville’s renaissance following the fire, the third largest metropolitan fire in U.S. history.

Rendering of proposed renovation to the Laura Street Trio, presented to the Downtown Investment Board.
Rendering of proposed renovation to the Laura Street Trio, presented to the Downtown Investment Board.

Southeast’s plans for the trio include the construction of a new, eight-floor building that would create a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel with restaurant and commercial space, according to the City. The new building would bring the hotel to 146 rooms, which would be needed to make the project financially viable, project architect Tom Hurst of Dasher Hurst Architects told City officials in February. Hurst said the design team and Southeast Managing Director Steve Atkins want the layout to emphasize the three historic structures.

The South facing facade of the conceptual design for Marriott’s Autograph Collection as viewed from Adams Street across N. Laura Street.
The South facing facade of the conceptual design for Marriott’s Autograph Collection as viewed from Adams Street across N. Laura Street.

“We want to make sure that we’re deferential to the existing historic buildings and we don’t try to overwhelm them,” Hurst said. “We could have probably designed a 20-story high-rise here and we could have made the numbers work better. But we want to pay homage to them.”

This wouldn’t be Southeast Group’s first rehabilitation of an historic structure; the developer successfully renovated and restored the Barnett Building across the street from the trio, converting it into a combination of living and commercial space.

The Southeast Group acquired the trio along with the Barnett building in 2013. The 18-story Barnett building was built in 1926 and had been vacant since the early 2000s though the inside was demolished in the mid-2000s, Atkins said. The group began rehab in 2017 and completed it a couple of years later.

The building is now home to several businesses and high-rise apartments with striking views of downtown and the river. Commercial banking takes up the first floor and the Jacksonville Business Journal resides on the second-floor mezzanine. Above that, the University of North Florida maintains a downtown college campus and entrepreneurial center.

Residential apartments occupy the eighth through the 18th floors.

“I recognize this is a great deal of money in terms of incentives, and we will be cognizant of that as we restore these buildings to the highest standard,” Southeast Principal and Managing Director Steve Atkins told the board after its March vote on the Laura Street Trio incentive package, according to Florida Times-Union reports at the time. Southeast is seeking National Park Service approval for historic designation of the building.

For Boyer of the DIA, the Trio project is one of many she hopes to keep the gas pedal pressed down on.

“We are pleased with the continued level of interest in downtown redevelopment projects that we have seen throughout the pandemic and that we are continuing to see,” Boyer said. “We are not seeing a slowdown; we are seeing continued increased level of interest. I think part of that is recognition of Florida’s growth and recovery and how we fared as compared with other locations. There is certainly no lack of interest.”

By Jennifer Edwards
Resident Community News

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