The latest example in a series of historically significant buildings lost to Jacksonville’s future will very soon be the Ford Motor Company assembly plant, at 1900 Wambolt Street. After having received local historic landmark status, the property was allowed by its owners to gradually decay and deteriorate, to the point of requiring more costly interventions than previously needed. The owners then argued that preserving the building was unfeasible, and applied for a demolition permit, which the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) denied. The owners appealed to the City Council, which overruled the HPC, allowing the demolition to take place.
The reasons why the Ford plant should be preserved are many and compelling, and regular readers of this column already know why historic preservation matters to Jacksonville’s future. Preservation creates high-skill, high-wage jobs. It increases tax revenue, and strengthens surrounding
property values. Heritage tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the visitor industry, which cities across the U.S. have been effectively promoting. Newcomers to Jacksonville are interested in what makes this city authentic, and unlike any other.
Too often we hear complaints that Jacksonville pays little attention to its history, and these concerns become loudest around the time of another great loss, as they have now at the news about the Ford plant. Let’s do more than complain and lament, though. On the theory that we should turn crises into opportunities, let’s find ways that Jacksonville can do better and be better, by preserving the evidence of its past.
The Ford plant may have experienced a different fate if it had been located just a few hundred feet to the south, within the jurisdiction of the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA). That would have unlocked incentives aimed at encouraging adaptive reside of historic structures, such as direct Historic Preservation grants, and revenue grants in the form of local tax credits. Those are tried and true resources in the DIA’s toolbox, but they are unavailable outside the Downtown district. Jacksonville has the capacity, legally and financially, to make those tools available citywide.
Incentives are “carrots” that work more reliably when they are balanced by the presence of a “stick.” In the case of direct or tax revenue grants, the City already has ways to enforce compliance with the terms of its grants, and any ordinance extending those incentives across the city must provide for remedies when property owners fail to deliver on their end of the bargain. That’s especially critical when historic structures are involved.
The Ford plant demonstrated a related weakness in Jacksonville’s process of designating local landmarks. Nearly twenty years ago, the property owner asked for and received local landmark status for the building, which extended certain protections aimed at preserving it. For example, landmarked structures may not be substantially altered or demolished, unless the owner goes through a process in which the City agrees that the action would be appropriate given the building’s significance. The arbiter is the Historic Preservation Commission, which has the responsibility of issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness. But, any decision of the Historic Preservation Commission may be overruled by the City Council, which is what happened to the Ford plant. The property owner argued that the building had become so deteriorated that restoration would be too expensive. The argument was debatable, in this case resolved in favor of the owner.
The economics of preservation are challenging, which is why preservation incentives exist in the first place. We can incentivize preservation on the one hand, but incentives will work better if there are meaningful penalties for owners who neglect old buildings, which appears to have happened to the Ford plant. “Demolition through neglect” takes many forms, and because it accumulates gradually, day by day and year by year, it is harder to detect and deter. One clear example was the ca. 1914 Moulton & Kyle funeral home, at 17 West Union Street, a classic artifact of Jacksonville’s “Prairie” style of architectural design. Abandoned in 2013, it deteriorated to the point of becoming a nuisance, drawing repeated code violation notices. In January 2021, a fire of unknown origin swept through the building and ended any chance of it being reused.
Local historic landmark status happens after a deliberate process, usually initiated by the property owner. Those who are the stewards of Jacksonville’s historically significant buildings need and deserve help in preserving them and adapting them to productive use in the 21st century. But when that stewardship responsibility is neglected, owners must face consequences severe enough to avert the subtle, indirect destruction that often results.
The Jacksonville Historical Society advocates for historic preservation citywide, as part of its mission to serve all of Jacksonville’s people and their neighborhoods. We are working with representatives of the City to strengthen preservation in places where the resources have been few. One of our ideas is to revive the annual Historic Preservation Awards discontinued by the City in 2018. If Jacksonville’s history matters to you, please let your City Council member hear from you. Just an email or a phone call can help ensure that future citizens will be able to see and touch the tangible evidence of their city’s fascinating and complicated past. And if you have additional ideas to support preservation, and the work of public history, we want to hear from you!
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D. Chief Executive Officer