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bobliocatt

Downtown's Architectural watchdog

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Fidelity site plan before review

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Fidelity site plan after review

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By RYAN GEDDES

The Times-Union

When Fidelity National Financial presented plans for its new building to downtown Jacksonville's design review committee in October 2004, the response was less than enthusiastic.

Using words like "uninspired," "bland" and "forsaken," some members criticized designs for the company's two new office buildings and parking decks, questioning their placement and context.

But the committee approved the project less than a month later, after reviewing Fidelity's proposed "master plan" for the area, which included three more buildings than previously presented, although it left its original building designs and layouts largely unchanged.

The Fidelity project is the most recent high-profile downtown project to face the scrutiny of the committee, but it is just one of many the body has approved since city ordinance officially created it in 2003.

Created to enforce downtown-specific zoning codes, the group is essentially an architectural review board, minus the architect -- the ordinance mandates that an architect sit on the board, but the slot has remained unfilled since its inception. Before it was officially created, the committee operated unofficially, and half of its members were architects.

"It's my understanding that, because of the Adam's Mark design, it was crystallized in a lot of peoples' minds that there needed to be design review of buildings critical to Jacksonville's skyline," said Kelly Elmore, a landscape architect who serves on the committee.

Elmore and others point to the Adam's Mark hotel design as a turning point, prompting the city to take some measure of control over downtown Jacksonville's urban design away from developers. When plans for the monolithic hotel were unveiled in 1998, its designers and owners received similar criticism to that recently leveled at the Fidelity project: boxy, beige and downright boring. That same year, downtown real estate broker Jim Citrano took the lead in putting together the original downtown architectural review board.

Since its official creation five years later, the new committee has approved or conditionally approved The Peninsula at St. Johns, San Marco Place, San Marco Riverwalk Village, Riverpointe, and other prominent downtown projects since its inception. Only one of the above -- The Peninsula at St. Johns -- has actually begun construction, but the large field of ambitious proposed projects OK'd by the committee could drastically alter Jacksonville's skyline in years to come.

Although the committee has no say in whether proposed downtown projects are financially feasible or are deserving of city incentives (the purview of the Downtown Development Authority), its members are charged with ensuring new projects work within the boundaries of the downtown zoning overlay, an ordinance created in 2003 to mesh the Downtown Master Plan with Jacksonville's overall zoning code.

The overlay addresses general urban concerns, such as placement of park space, types of businesses allowed and the breakout of the downtown region by district. But it also requires the committee to sign off on a variety of design issues related to new construction or renovation downtown, including building setbacks, roof designs, heights, parking, landscaping and signs.

A work in progress

With the Fidelity office building, committee members had to address a host of those issues in one project, which members had difficulty doing without pulling back and asking the company to return with its overall development plan.

"Putting that building into context was clearly important to the committee," said David Auchter, chair of the committee and vice-chair of the DDA board.

Indeed, Fidelity's proposed office building, when viewed on its own, seemed to go against some tenets of the Downtown Master Plan, which endeavors to "break up the building form to allow views through the architecture," "discourage large undifferentiated building masses," "encourage building breaks" and "encourage variety in roof forms."

Committee members Trip Stanley and Elmore raised concerns about the proposed Fidelity building at an October 2004 meeting, complaining that its design simply mirrored the neighboring structures' glass and concrete facades and that it did little to introduce variety into an otherwise "bland" campus.

"You've got private enterprise, private property and private dollars invested, and the bottom line is, the owners don't want to be told how to develop their property," said Elmore.

Elmore said Fidelity officials lobbied committee members between meetings to adopt the design after reviewing the company's long-term development plan, which comprised three new buildings, including a 13-story tower planned by a non-Fidelity partnership, and added additional stories to the original buildings.

The committee voted to approve the new buildings, but Elmore said the group is expecting more from the company's future appearances.

"I think we made our point," said Elmore. "We capitulated once, but we need to see something from you."

Auchter said that, after the Fidelity process, committee members agreed to encourage future applicants to approach board members early, before formally presenting their plans to the full group.

"They had to consider the unique demands of the overlay, preserving view corridors to the river, providing retail percentage at the ground level and, overall, making development of the property pedestrian-friendly," said Auchter. "It was easier to acknowledge their intent when you saw the building located within the master plan."

Fred Parvey, director of corporate real estate and construction for Fidelity, said he was surprised at the committee's reaction to Fidelity's initial proposal, and he questioned the efficiency of meeting with nine board members individually on every project.

"It is time consuming, and it adds a layer on top of what you're trying to do," said Parvey. "I agree with the DRC in having a level view of what's going on downtown -- I truly agree -- but I think they could take a level of complexity out of the process."

Residential projects take risks

Although the committee eventually hammered out a deal with Fidelity after viewing the company's master plan in context, the building's relationship to the river and its pedestrian friendliness were not the only concerns of some members, who thought the building altogether unbecoming of a Fortune 500 company.

But of late, downtown Jacksonville's residential projects have been the recent risk-takers, and the committee's issues with them have been minor. Riverpointe, a pair of jutting twin residential towers proposed near I-95 in front of the Aetna building, was well-received by the committee, as were The Peninsula and San Marco Place, all Southbank residential projects.

"The Downtown Development Authority is doing a good job in reviewing these and allowing development to occur," said Tom Rensing, a partner with KBJ Architects who worked on the design for the Riverpointe project.

Rensing said Jacksonville is still a relatively conservative environment when it comes to urban architecture and that it takes pioneering building developers and owners to change trends.

"Somebody's got to take the first step," said Rensing. "Once somebody takes that initiative, I think they'll have a sellout overnight."

Real estate industry analyst Ray Rodriguez agrees that conservatism has ruled most recent downtown Jacksonville architectural decisions and that even developers with edgy aesthetics are constrained by local market conditions.

"We're not the type of town that does big business. We don't do business with Wall Street. We don't have a Chicago Board of Trade," said Rodriguez. "We don't live in a city that has a motivation to spend."

At the moment, a hot residential market spurred by historically low interest rates is pushing the frequency and creativity of the downtown condominium and apartment market. But Jacksonville's office market is challenged at best. According to a recent report by Moody's Investors Service, Jacksonville's central business district office vacancy rate hit nearly 21 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004 against a national composite vacancy rate of about 14 percent.

High vacancy in existing downtown office space will likely dampen the construction of new office buildings in the area in the near future, analysts say. But if the real estate construction cycle trends back toward downtown office space, which downtown boosters hope it eventually will, the design review committee could see more scenarios like the Fidelity expansion.

Although committee members say the Fidelity project, with its wide footprint of largely undeveloped riverfront land, is a unique case, Elmore said visually arresting and well-designed buildings are an important part of Jacksonville's identity and that the committee should encourage developers to work toward creating such structures.

"If we're going to be worth our salt, we need to pressure them into making it as nice as possible," said Elmore.

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Some projects

The Downtown Development Authority's Design Review Committee signs off on the design of every downtown development project application, from courthouses to carports. Here are some of the recent projects reviewed by the committee.

Project: Duval County Courthouse

Description: Nine-story building once planned for five downtown city blocks.

Action: After deferring its vote initially, the committee eventually voted 5-1 to reject the design over aesthetic concerns about the removal of the building's dome.

Project: Fidelity National Financial Parking Garage

Description: Eight-story, 1,700-space facility on Riverside Avenue.

Action: The committee voted 8-0 to approve the design after initial concerns about the structure's retail component, the possibility that its paint could fade and the direction of its landscape lighting.

Project: Fidelity National Financial Office Tower

Description: Eight-story office building supported by a two-story parking garage.

Action: The committee deferred a vote on the design after members raised concerns about the overall development of Fidelity's campus. Streetscaping, building color, street-level vitality and public access were raised as design concerns. After reviewing Fidelity's master plan at a later meeting, the committee approved the building's design, 6-0.

Project: Riverpointe

Description: A twin-tower riverfront condominium project proposed near the Aetna building, on the Southbank.

Action: The committee approved the glass and steel design, in an 8-0 vote.

Project: Adams Street Station

Description: A grouping of 25 restored rail cars being developed as office condominiums near Alltel Stadium.

Action: After securing an agreement from the developer to use Washingtonian palm trees instead of cabbage palm trees in its landscaping plan, the committee voted 8-0 to approve the design.

Project: San Marco Riverwalk Village

Description: Hotel, condominium and retail project proposed for the Southbank, at the site of the Radisson Riverwalk hotel.

Action: The committee approved the design 6-0 subject to review of the project's final streetscaping designs, Riverwalk designs, signage and materials.

Source: Design Review Committee minutes provided by JEDC

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ryan.geddesjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4689

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._17764020.shtml.

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Well, I'm still not that impressed with the "new" Fidelity design. Tha surface parking bugs me. But hey, it's better than nothing. Also, I never thought of the Adam's Mark as ugly. Sure, it's a bit big and box-like, but up close, it looks really nice.

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In all fairness, the second plan is much better than the first ... even if neither are ideal. That auxilary road and river access point make a world of difference over the first one.

However, I'm slightly confused over the placement of buildings on this "campus," mostly because I can't read the writing on the low-res pictures.

-Where is this 8 floor, 1,700 space garage? Is it that block north of riverside av? If so, will it have street retail? The article wasn't entirely clear ... "concerns about the structure's retail component" ...

-What exactly will the 2 floor garage do at street level? Retail, false fascade, concrete wall, earthen landscaped mound?

-Which is the 8 story fidelity tower and which is this 13 story "non-fidelity" tower?

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In all fairness, the second plan is much better than the first ... even if neither are ideal. That auxilary road and river access point make a world of difference over the first one.

However, I'm slightly confused over the placement of buildings on this "campus," mostly because I can't read the writing on the low-res pictures.

-Where is this 8 floor, 1,700 space garage? Is it that block north of riverside av? If so, will it have street retail? The article wasn't entirely clear ... "concerns about the structure's retail component" ...

The 8 floor building is the lowest dark orange box in each plan. A parking garage will be built between it and Riverside Avenue.

-What exactly will the 2 floor garage do at street level? Retail, false fascade, concrete wall, earthen landscaped mound?
I don't know the answer to this. I believe it may be a similar repeat of the existing deck, located to the left of it.

-Which is the 8 story fidelity tower and which is this 13 story "non-fidelity" tower?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

The 13 story tower and garage are located on the far right corner of the site plan. It will be located at the same interestion, where BCBS and the fire station sit. It seems like this tower is on track to break ground before summer.

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Remember, this is not "old" master plan and "new" master plan. This is "short term" and "long term".

My girlfriend works in Fidelity's Marketing Dept. I'll see what I can do about some better pics.

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