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Downtown: The Jax Architectural Debate

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As projects queue, builders debate architecture's effects

Clennon L. King

Correspondent

SOUTHBANK -- Over the next five years high-rise construction cranes will dominate the city's Southbank area as developers break ground on four large-scale projects that are expected to fundamentally change the architectural look Downtown.

Whether the change will be for better or worse depends on whom you ask.

Riverpointe, the proposed 48-story, twin-tower multi-use development, is perhaps the boldest proposal. It features a glass and steel design topped by a spire that is eliciting divided opinion among some area architects.

"It's oversized," said Erik Kasper, president of Kasper Architecture and Development in Jacksonville. "It appears to be out of context with its surroundings." The project is expected to be built next to the existing Aetna building and become the city's tallest building.

Kasper's not alone in his criticism of the development, while other architects expressed support for its design. In any case, architects and developers agreed that four major projects breaking ground in five years could change the nature of the riverfront skyline Downtown.

Some architects did not mince words when commenting on the Riverpointe design. "It's a little assaulting, what it's doing to the fabric and scale of the neighborhood," said Larry Wilson, a partner in the Jacksonville architecture firm Rink Reynolds Diamond Fisher Wilson P.A. "I can't figure out how they're going to squeeze it in there. It's going to be pretty tight."

Boynton Beach-based Krook Douglas Development LLC is proposing the project, which includes 550 residential units ranging from $150,000 to $170,000, a 10-story parking garage, townhouses, a restaurant and commercial space.

Officials with KBJ Architects of Jacksonville, which designed the project, said the design is inspired by styles of the 1950s. It is meant to complement the nearby Aetna building, which KBJ designed in 1954.

The Downtown Development Authority's Design Review Committee gave preliminary approval to the design in March.

The three other developments on the Southbank also figure to help reshape, if not redefine, the Downtown landscape, developers and architects said.

The design of the Peninsula & Strand at St. Johns, located next to the existing Riverplace Tower, calls for a 36-story condo tower, another apartment tower, a seven-story office building, parking decks, retail space and townhouses on the St. Johns River. Miami-based American Land Housing Group is proposing the development.

Adjacent to the Peninsula, Miami-based Riverwalk Hotels LLC is proposing the Riverwalk/Radisson Project, a 17-acre, $500 million development comprising six buildings, including three 35-story towers. It will also feature a public park, marina and grocery and encompass the existing Radisson Riverwalk Hotel and the former Crawdaddy's restaurant.

The fourth Southbank project is San Marco Place, a $46 million, 141-unit condo project headed by developers Jay Southerland and Michael Balanky. The units will range in price from $190,000 to $500,000.

From plain-Jane to cutting edge?

Architects said Jacksonville's existing skyline has long steered clear of cutting-edge architecture, preferring instead fairly traditional mainstream design. And with the exception of Riverpointe, this latest generation of Southbank projects is no exception.

"There's some truth to people building for functionality here," said Al Battle, managing director of the Downtown Development Authority. He doubted the city would ever compete architecturally with New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

"The question is, do developers build into the existing context" or should they take a chance? Battle said.

Retired Jacksonville architect Taylor Hardwick said the decision is not easy.

The designer of Jacksonville's soon-to-be-replaced Downtown library, Friendship Park and 11 area public schools said developers are hard pressed to take chances when so much money is on the line.

"They don't want to scare people away," Hardwick said.

But even functionality does not guarantee longevity in the world of Jacksonville's architecture.

That's one reason Hardwick is lobbying Mayor John Peyton and the Jacksonville City Council to salvage the old Downtown library, which will be replaced by the new Main Library that was designed by New York architect Robert Stern and is being built on Hemming Plaza.

"There are economic forces that you can't do anything about," said Hardwick, expressing disappointment at the impending threat of demolition. "It's part of the American tradition."

The Peyton administration said it doesn't take lightly the leadership role government has in fostering architecture that is timeless and distinguished.

"I think government can have a real influential role in impacting how this community looks and feels by investing in good architecture," Peyton said.

The mayor pointed to several public projects to illustrate how aesthetically pleasing architecture can be functional. His examples included such recent

projects as the Baseball Grounds, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena and the latest version of the county courthouse.

"Our courthouse, while it will have fewer frills, will be attractive, handsome, durable and safe," Peyton said.

There is no question about the utility and functionality of all four Southbank projects. Driving each is a consumer market keen on spending less time behind the wheel and more time living closer to their workplace.

Despite widely held criticism that Jacksonville developers have not been prepared to spend what it takes to produce great city architecture, several architects said the Southbank projects are taking the city to "the next level."

"I perceive it as good news," said Mick Stuebben, president of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "It's adding elements of a residential component. I don't think it will redefine the skyline. I think it will reshape it."

Despite skepticism about Riverpointe, Wilson characterized the design as "unique" and "futuristic."

"I enjoy anything that pushes the envelope," he said. "The fact that it presents something that hasn't been presented before is exciting to me."

Jacksonville architect Jose Perez predicted the twin towers would be the beginning of a trend.

"In the next 10 to 15 years, you're going to see more avant-garde structures in Jacksonville," Perez said.

One school of thought is that "cutting-edge" high-rise architecture can give a city an ambience that attracts companies.

Many of Jacksonville's boosters have long hoped that a Fortune 500 company would relocate and perhaps add a new tower to the city's skyline.

Last year, Fidelity National Financial Inc. relocated its headquarters from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Riverside Avenue in Jacksonville.

Although CEO Bill Foley has announced plans to build a 10-story office building and a $12 million high-rise condo, hotel and restaurant development on an adjacent 5.9-acre tract of land, there's still no word whether the design will be "cutting edge."

Hardwick is not convinced that cutting-edge architecture will act as a magnet for high-powered companies. He believes the engine driving the proposed Southbank development is not the design of a building, as much as the fact that housing is being built.

"It's the activity that defines the architecture of a city and not the other way around," he said.

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What an interesting article. I can't form an opinion on the size and scale of Riverpointe, because the only rendering I've seen shows a disproportionate view of the towers. I like the spires, and I think that although the buildings are much larger than the Aetna tower, they will still complement each other through their design. I'd like to see more glass towers, but not that old '70's Modis glass. More modern glass, like the Federal Courthouse's.

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I agree. Modern structures like Riverpointe will definitely be a nice complement for the city. The Modis building though is really neat looking if a picture is taken just right.

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