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A Jacksonville Beach condominium reverses 40 years of salt water and sea air damage.
By Pamela Babcock
RESIDENTS OF Seascape Condominium, an undulating, S-shaped high rise built in 1974 in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., all enjoy sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean on their 30- to 54-foot balconies. But those views of paradise come with a price.
Years of salt water and sea air rusted rebar under the concrete and compromised structural steel cables on the balconies. Thanks to a recently completed two-and-a-half year, nearly $6 million renovation project that included several structural and cosmetic improvements, the balconies have been repaired and the expansive views are no longer threatened.
The formidable task wasn't without some major twists. The engineering firm originally hired to do the job was replaced, and the association currently is in litigation over the issue, according to its attorney.
Seascape, Jacksonville Beach's first high-rise condominium, known by long-timers as "The S" because of its distinctive shape, is an 11-story, 99-unit building fronting a block and a half of beach.
When it opened 40 years ago, two- bedroom units were priced at $41,500, and three bedrooms ranged from $45,500 to $49,500, according to a sales flier touting the new building. "All suites include virtually a wall of glass opening onto a private balcony overlooking the excitement of the Atlantic Ocean," the flier reads. "Select yours early."
And plenty of people did. In those days, Jacksonville Beach consisted mostly of small cottages and offered a low-key way of life. Today, the roughly 8-square-mile beach has grown into a resort area with more than a dozen beachfront condominiums, many restaurants, clubs, the Mayo Clinic Primary Care Center and the Tournament Players Club Sawgrass golf course.
Seascape residents enjoy amenities that include three pools, a sauna and a fitness center. Owners also have the option to purchase one of 26 cabanas on the ground floor, each of which includes a small kitchen, bathroom and living room for use while enjoying the property's pools; there's currently a waiting list.
Planning to address structural problems at Seascape began around 2008.
Dave Rasmussen, a retired U.S. Navy officer and past board president, led the community through two years of discussions to get the renovation started.
When Seascape was built in 1974, concrete was poured over rebar that later supported 30,000 pounds of tension to help hold up the building, according to Rasmussen, who moved to the community in 2002. But cracks in the concrete and masonry—particularly on balconies—had allowed salt and moisture to get into the rebar, which started to rust and expand. Once that started, the deterioration accelerated.
Making matters worse, some owners had tile or carpet on their balconies that trapped the salt and moisture underneath; tile and carpets are no longer allowed.
Despite the apparent need for renovations, Rasmussen says it was challenging for owners to reach a consensus about the project. Before planning the renovation, board meetings had been "more social gatherings with a little bit of business than anything else."
"But when we got to planning the renovation, there were an awful lot of decisions and judgments to be made that weren't clear cut," he recalls. Convincing owners that something had to be done wasn't an easy task.
Seascape was more than 30 years old at the time, and prior boards had done minimal maintenance at minimal expense. "Many people wanted to continue to go that way," he says.
It became obvious to some owners that if something wasn't done soon, Seascape was going to lose balconies, according to Rasmussen. Late in the planning process, pieces of some balconies actually did break off the building.
The renovation project finally got underway in 2010. It included repairing and replacing concrete on balconies and replacing post-tension cables and splices.
Balconies were sealed to protect the new work. In addition, cracks in exterior columns and walls were repaired, and the entire building was painted off-white to complement the design and maintain the architect's original vision, according to Rebecca Finn, Seascape manager, resident and former board president.
One of the more contentious issues was replacing the architect's original square masonry balcony railings with new curved aluminum railings
"The masonry really was artwork, but it was something that couldn't be maintained at a cost that was prudent," explains Finn, a former construction accountant.
A year-and-a-half debate ensued before members voted for the aluminum rails. Today, Finn notes that even the staunchest of the masonry supporters "enjoy the visibility and sleek look" of the new railings, which also happen to let more light into units.
In addition to repairing the balconies, the association also recoated its roof and modernized elevator cabs by replacing fake wood paneling with stainless steel. Plus, the association upgraded the community's three pools, installed new sliding glass doors in units and renovated the dated lobby by removing heavy drapes, and adding fresh colors and contemporary furnishings.
"We had an interior designer who did it in all different shades of blue and aqua and green," Finn says. "It just looks like it belongs in a sleek building on the beach."
The association kept owners apprised of the projects through updates and periodic meetings. It sent notices to owners through e-mail and regular mail, and posted fliers in the building's mailroom.
Sometimes it was necessary for the board to meet every two weeks. Finn describes renovation meetings as "very lively," particularly when there were change orders to the contract.
The project, finished in early 2013, was originally estimated at $2.4 million but totaled nearly $6 million. The association financed the project through a $4 million line of credit, used about $400,000 from its $1.5 million in reserves and issued two special assessments—one for $700,000 and another for $400,000.
Assessments for owners ranged from about $44,000 to $67,000, depending on unit size. One owner, who bought two adjoining units and knocked down the wall between them to create one living space, paid $117,500.
Of 99 owners, only two didn't pay in full. The association foreclosed on one of the units, and the mortgage provider foreclosed on the other, says Finn.
Attorney Lee A. Weintraub, a shareholder and vice chair of Becker & Poliakoff's construction law and litigation practice group in Fort Lauderdale, was unable to provide details on why ties with the original engineering firm were severed since the litigation is ongoing, but says "there were concerns about whether the firm had performed its obligations under the agreement with the association."
Weintraub notes that the association board "handled difficult issues admirably on a daily basis."
While there are a lot of new condominiums on the beach, Finn notes that nearly a third of Seascape's owners have either inherited units from their parents or bought a unit to live in the same building as their parents.
"We're a long-term residential condominium," Finn says, adding that many owners have lived there for more than 15 years. About 35 percent of Seascape's owners are full-time residents and about 52 percent have units as second homes. The community currently has about a dozen rentals.
Today, three Seascape units from 1,230 to 1,274 square feet are listed for sale at prices that range from $479,000 to $519,000. Earlier this year, two 1,274-square-foot units sold for about $560,000 each, according to Finn.
Since the project was completed, Finn says comments from the Jacksonville Beach community have been "very positive." Seascape also has given tours to board members from nearby condominiums.
Rasmussen, who recently renovated his unit, says owners are "pretty proud of the building" now.
Marc Frith, a Delta Air Lines pilot, and his wife waited until most of the renovation dust settled before buying a two-bedroom, fifth-floor unit in 2012.
"We were very interested in buying at Seascape because the major renovation and assessments had been completed and paid for," says Frith, board president since March. "We really liked the finished product."
He has since given his own unit a facelift and overseen a renovation of the association's weight room and kitchen by the pool.
Frith hopes to boost owner involvement at meetings and on committees.
"We're making a lot of decisions, and I'd like to see more diverse owner participation instead of the same few that participate all the time," Frith says.
He also wants to focus on enforcing association rules, maintaining the budget and helping the community prepare for its next 40 years.
"I think everyone's happy with the (finished) project," Frith says, but adds that some owners still gripe at meetings. "There's some unhappiness about how it went and how long it took to get finished."
Frith says he's making general maintenance a top priority, particularly because of the building's location on the beach and the ever-present salt water and sea air doing damage.
"I call it the rust patrol—me and the maintenance guys walk the building, point out rusty areas and brush it off and repaint it. You try to keep things going."
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.