The long quest to turn a century-old, downtown Jacksonville building into an upscale steak restaurant called Cowford Chophouse has gone through Historic Preservation Commission meetings, City Council sessions, courthouse hearings, and construction delays.
The action moved last week to a City Hall conference room, where Mayor Lenny Curry convened a meeting of top officials from his staff, JEA, and the investor behind the multimillion-dollar renovation to work through the latest flare-up.
The gathering came after Jacques Klempf, whose group bought the abandoned building in 2014, fired off emails to Curry that accused JEA of being a “total detriment to downtown re-development” in his dispute with JEA over whether its underground utility equipment poses a risk to the foundation of his building.
The oven-hot rhetoric cooled somewhat in wake of that meeting.
“Everybody is working toward an amicable solution,” said Natalie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Cowford Chophouse.
Taxpayers have a financial stake in the place. The city provided a $500,000 grant and a $250,000 loan in 2014 for the work. Cowford Chophouse LLC is pouring millions of its own money into the renovations.
Curry said when Klempf sent him the angry emails, he decided to get everybody in the same room because the city needs to do what it can to promote private investment, whether it’s in downtown or elsewhere.
“We want government to be an ally, not an obstacle,” he said.
The meeting, whose attendees included JEA Chief Executive Officer Paul McElroy and city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, didn’t entirely resolve the dispute. But Curry said the meeting put a framework in place for further talks while the renovation stays on track.
The original target date for opening the restaurant was summer 2016, but the renovation is taking far longer. Cowford Chophouse isn’t giving a new target date for the grand opening.
Previously known as the Bostwick Building, the two-story structure came close to being demolished before the city went to court to obtain possession of it. The city then sold it to Klempf, who unveiled plans for a steakhouse at the corner of Bay and Ocean streets in the entertainment district known as The Elbow.
DeYoung said the renovation has fixed the major foundation problems that existed when Klempf bought the building. The foundation is fine now, but Klempf, working with an engineering firm, is concerned that the foundation “could be compromised over time,” DeYoung said.
At issue is an underground structure called a vault that contains transformers that are part of the electrical grid serving downtown. When water gets into the vault, JEA uses a pump to remove it.
Klemp contends that pump also pumps silt from underneath the building into the storm drain, and that as a result, the foundation suffered damage in the past and the same thing will happen again in the future. He wrote to Curry the vault has needed repairs for at least 10 years.
JEA says that’s not the case. Utility spokeswoman Gerri Boyce said the “grit” in the water pumped out of the vault is a result of stormwater run-off picking up particles on the street, not from underneath the building.
“The vault in no way impedes them from opening as planned,” she said.
JEA agreed to hire an outside engineer who will inspect the site and provide findings and recommendations, which could help break the impasse.
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