First bite taken in delayed demo of Berkman Plaza II eyesore

Demonstration Thursday shows how high-reach excavator will chew through building

After 13 years as and unfinished eyesore on Jacksonville's downtown waterfront, a slow-motion demolition begins.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A downtown Jacksonville eyesore that has been sitting vacant and unfinished on Bay Street for more than a decade is finally coming down -- very slowly.

Park Beeler, senior managing member of Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization, which owns the building, said the firm handling the demolition, Pece of Mind Environmental Inc., was concerned about some wear on one of the parts used in the machinery to tear down the tower and wanted it replaced because of safety concerns.

He explained that the machine, a high-reach excavator, will basically bite chunks out of the 18-story building, which will be torn apart floor by floor from the top down. He said that method can take longer but it creates less dust and is considered safer than using a ball and chain, which creates flying debris.

The demolition firm, Pece of Mind, previously said: “This equipment is a unique piece of machinery that will reach high to the top of the shell structure on the site and literally ‘bite off’ the concrete and steel like giant scissors, then move it safely away from the building.”

The crew performed a demonstration of the machine during a news conference on Thursday. Beeler said it will then be checked thoroughly on Friday to make sure it’s functioning properly. Demolition of the building will begin in earnest next week, he said.

City Councilman Reggie Gaffney said watching the first piece of the structure come down Thursday was a humbling experience because it has been such a long time coming. He called it a historic moment for Jacksonville -- one that he wasn’t sure he would see happen during his tenure on the council.

“It’s an exciting time for the city of Jacksonville... even though it’s going to take a minute [to complete the demolition],” Gaffney said. “I’m not going to be satisfied until it’s gone.”

He said safety has been a major concern for the project, which could be completed in 90-120 days, depending on weather conditions.

“This is why the process has taken so long and is going so slow,” Gaffney said.

He said the city wants to avoid any further incidents like the one 13 years ago, when the parking garage next to the Plaza collapsed, killing one man and injuring 23 others.

Gaffney said safety concerns for the surrounding buildings were what kept the city from approving an implosion of the tower, and he praised the company that took on the slower demolition option.

“We feel like that’s going to be much safer for the city of Jacksonville,” Gaffney said.

It will cost more than $1 million to tear the old Berkman tower down. That cost is being fronted by the property owner.

Demolition was originally set to begin last week, according to Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization, which paid $5.6M for the property.

The developers hope to build a mixed-use development, called 500 East Bay, but the project will need to be approved by the Downtown Investment Authority.

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The plan would include about 300 new apartments, 40 townhomes, and possibly a grocery store and pharmacy.

At the same time, the proposed site is said to complement Shad Khan’s downtown development plan.

Beeler said his company has already been approached by both apartment and hotel developers about the project.

“A lot of people have been watching Jacksonville for a long time and now something’s happening and they’re coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.