JACKSONVILLE, Florida. November 16, 2020 (Jacksonville.com) — The rattle and clank of heavy equipment digging inside crater-sized holes leaves no doubt construction has finally begun on a new JEA headquarters building in downtown Jacksonville. The new headquarters won’t bring more employees into downtown because JEA’s existing headquarters is just a few blocks away, but the $75 million project marks a rare case of Class A office space being added to the core of downtown’s Northbank.
Construction started more than a year after JEA selected Ryan Companies in April 2019 to build the headquarters, which followed years of studies by the utility about whether to stay in its current building or move. “This is a long time coming,” JEA interim CEO Paul McElroy said in a video for a “virtual groundbreaking” Wednesday.
The headquarters building got caught up in the twists and turns of last year’s attempted sale of JEA, so it might be fitting that before Ryan can start building from the ground up, it first had to go down below the surface to excavate debris from buildings torn down long ago on that spot. “There have been a few surprises,” said Doug Dieck, president of the Southeast Region for Ryan Companies.
He said Ryan Companies knew the square block had been the site in the past for buildings but it wasn’t until construction work started that the extent of the left-behind basement structure and other debris became apparent. The basement appears to be from the George Washington Hotel, which was Jacksonville’s top hotel destination and social hub for decades after it opened in 1926 at the corner of Julia and Adams streets. The hotel was torn down in 1973.
JEA’s decision to build the headquarters, which JEA will lease, became clouded when the utility’s board did a 10-year strategic study last year that lead to the ill-fated decision to put the utility up for sale. JEA said in summer 2019 that the utility’s outlook was so uncertain that keeping it as a city-owned utility would force JEA to relocate to rented space in the suburbs.
But after launching the sales process, the board decided to stick with the plan for a new headquarters building as a condition of a sale. The former board then cancelled the sales talks and got replaced by a new board that reaffirmed constructing a new headquarters, albeit somewhat smaller by having a separate emergency operations center at a different location.
“It’s been a little bit delayed,” Dieck said. “Obviously, JEA has dealt with some issues in their leadership. They’ve remained committed to the building. We had a signed lease in June of 2019 so it was a matter of trying to work with them and figure what exactly do they want to build and then execute the plan. That took a little doing but we’re excited.”
The seven-story building will go on a square block bounded by Pearl, Adams, Julia and Monroe streets. It’s next to the Duval County Courthouse complex so it will add more foot traffic for stores and restaurants in that part of downtown. Compared to JEA’s current headquarters, the new building will feature large windows and open floorplans geared toward collaborative meeting space.
“There is a lot of natural light that’s going to come in, and that’s very different from the current environment,” Dieck said. The building is designed to have gold certification for both LEED and WELL standards. LEED measures environmental and energy-efficiency design for construction of projects, while the WELL standard evaluates how the operation of the buildings affects the “health and well being” of its occupants.
Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer said it’s the first “major office tower” built in the downtown core since the 1980s. She said as more residents move downtown to join almost 60,000 people who work there, the JEA headquarters will build up the density in its area. “They need our streets to be walkable and existing and vibrant,” Boyer said in the virtual groundbreaking. Ryan Companies expect to finish construction in early 2022.