Wayne’s World: A Different Idea

Wayne’s World: A Different Idea
The JEA Building, originally known as the Universal Marion. The Jacksonville Historical Society lists this 1963 mid-century modern, 19-story skyscraper among its list of locally endangered historic structures.

Repurposing JEA Headquarters into UF’s Downtown Campus

Ever wonder what it takes to restore and repurpose an architectural gem in Jacksonville’s historic downtown?

Wayne Wood thinks about it all the time.

A founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation, Wood has been involved in saving Jacksonville’s under-appreciated architectural gems since the 1970s. His latest book, “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future,” documents 860 such sites.

Now that JEA has vacated its former headquarters at 21 West Church Street, Wood is concerned that the City of Jacksonville will yet again demolish an historic downtown architectural gem. And with good reason. Jacksonville has a penchant for tearing down historic downtown. Albeit all with good intention, in the spirit of building something shiny and new. Seems we’re not happy with distinctive architecture and aspire to look something like south Florida.

The Landing, courthouse, and city hall; the Greyhound bus station, a city block across from the Omni Hotel, the entire LaVilla neighborhood, and the Ford Motor Assembly Plant are among a long list of downtown properties the City has demolished during my brief 30-plus years in Jacksonville. Most of the land on which these structures stood either became parking lots or stood vacant for years. Some remain so.

It’s as if we embrace a bizarre ethic: “If we demolish it, they will come.”

An Opportunity: UF’s Future Jacksonville Campus

In February, former mayor Lenny Curry proposed using approximately 18 acres near downtown FSCJ for a to-be-established University of Florida-Jacksonville campus, an effort whose cost is presently undetermined but enjoys a state legislative $75 million appropriation together with a City Council $20 million commitment.

While the actual location, according to Representative Wyman Duggan, will be up to the University of Florida, talk of a central downtown location seems to have evaporated in the wake of Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s pitching his $2 billion stadium development dream, which includes a $5 million pledge if the University of Florida locates its campus on property he owns near the stadium.

The stadium district is located at the east end of the Northbank, a good mile on foot from city hall, with no shade to speak of from one point to the other.

Wood dislikes both locations.

Converting acreage near FSCJ’s downtown campus doesn’t work well, says Wood. In fact, his analysis of developing the acreage identified in Curry’s slide deck presentations is too costly and will require removing 50% of college parking, a JEA water processing facility, the Mary L. Singleton Senior Center, the City’s Engineer’s Building, and six Waterworks Park historic structures.

And developing a new campus on Fairgrounds property, Wood argues, is too far removed from the urban core which boasts museums, small shops, walkable streets, and outdoor parks. It’s where people are already concentrated.

Wood’s Proposal: Reimagine JEA’s Church Street Complex

“It’s the perfect location for the University of Florida downtown campus,” says Wood, referring to JEA’s Church Street complex which he describes as “nationally significant.”

It’s big, at 360,000 square feet.

Completed in 1963 during a decade of explosive building expansion in Jacksonville’s urban core, JEA’s former headquarters tower is part of an architecturally significant “Downton Center” retail complex, according to The Jaxson’s Ennis Davis. It includes three buildings—the 19-story office tower, a 25,000 square foot ground level store, a six-story former department store—and a six-story parking garage.

Originally known as the Universal Marion, the tower has what Wood calls a “quirky yet iconic facade,” and according to Davis, “may be the largest Mid-Century Modern building in Jacksonville.”

After JEA announced plans to vacate the complex, Ennis and The Jaxson called for “City Council, Downtown Investment Authority, and JEA work together to proactively craft a plan and strategy for the adaptive reuse of the entire Downtown Center complex.”

There’s no evidence they have done so.

But Wayne Wood has.

He says the downtown complex “doesn’t lend itself easily to corporate headquarter development,” what with its size and location far from St. Johns’ river views. Consequently, Wood is concerned that JEA won’t be able to sell the building, resulting ultimately in the City’s deciding to blow it to smithereens, creating yet again another hollowed out section of historic downtown.

Wood’s Idea Deserves a Hearing

Wood’s proposal that the former JEA Church Street complex be repurposed into UF’s Jacksonville downtown campus has merit and seems to be a win-win-win-win: we preserve part of Jacksonville’s architectural history, increase our intellectual capital downtown, support surrounding businesses, and save precious public resources in the process.

Every deal city government “incentivizes” includes a trade-off. We ought to know the cost of converting and building near FSCJ, or constructing a brand-new campus located a good, hot, non-walkable mile from the historic urban core versus repurposing an architectural gem, which already includes ample parking and is surrounded by existing small shops, museums, restaurants, parks and walkable streets.

Wood’s idea deserves a proper hearing.

You can help. Use the City Council link, coj.net/city-council.aspx, to find your City Council member.

By Guest Contributor Sherry Magill

This story was adapted and reprinted with permission. For the original Substack story and more by JaxLookout Redux and Sherry Magill, visit sherrymagill.substack.com.

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