There will be one less Donovan Dean-designed building in Lakeland after the City Commission voted unanimously Monday to allow the demolition of the Florida Citrus Mutual Building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Orange Street to make way for more parking spaces for the anticipated influx of Publix Super Markets employees to its new downtown technology campus.
Commissioner Bill Read requested that Publix leave the lot open on evenings and weekends for public use before he and all his colleagues voted in favor of the tear-down.
Publix bought the building in 2016 for $3.1 million and it has sat vacant for years. Lakeland Economic Development Council President Steve Scruggs told city commissioners earlier this month that the building contains asbestos, which causes cancer, and has fallen into disrepair. Florida Citrus Mutual has since moved its headquarters to Bartow.
“For six decades Florida Citrus Mutual’s headquarters and its triangle logo served as a landmark for the downtown Lakeland area, and a gathering place for Florida’s iconic citrus industry,” said Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President and CEO Matt Joyner. “Letting go of that history is tough, but it’s also exciting to see another Florida icon, Publix, continue to serve our community through the development of additional jobs and opportunities for growth.”
Architect Donovan Dean
According to the Lakeland Public Library Donovan Dean photograph collection, “Dean was one of the foremost architects in Lakeland and the state of Florida in the 1940’s and 1950’s. His firm, Donovan Dean and Associates had offices in Lakeland, Orlando, Cocoa and, for a brief time, Winter Haven.”
More than 1,000 of Dean’s midcentury modern designs can be seen from Jacksonville to Miami and Cocoa to Lakeland, where approximately 200 of his designs were built. In addition to the Florida Citrus Mutual Building, they include some of the most iconic structures in town:
- The Lake Mirror Civic Center Auditorium.
- Publix Corporate Headquarters on U.S. 92 — also called George Jenkins Blvd.
- Southgate Shopping Center and its iconic arch (which LkldNow uses at its logo).
He also designed more than 60 Publix shopping centers, including their iconic flying wings above the stores.
The Florida Citrus Mutual building, which still bears its moniker on the front and back, was built in 1957 to house the industry’s advocacy agency. At the time, more than 6,000 growers were members. Today, it’s down to 2,000, with freezes, citrus canker in the 1990s and citrus greening for the last two decades destroying trees and driving farmers to sell their lands to developers.
There was no comment from the building’s owner, Publix Super Markets, at Monday morning’s meeting. Publix officials have not responded to several requests from LkldNow for comment since the city put the building’s demolition on the meeting agenda earlier this month. Questions included if they will save the lobby portion of the structure for aesthetics or any of the building’s architectural elements for use in other buildings.
Publix heir and historic preservationist Gregory Fancelli has expressed interest in recovering some architectural elements of the building, including its lobby doors.
Land needed for expansion
Publix Super Markets is planning a major expansion in downtown Lakeland. It is taking over a fourth building downtown to create a “technology campus” for its information technology workers.
Scruggs told city commissioners in early August that there will be hundreds of new high-skill, high-wage jobs, with an average annual wage of $130,000.
Publix has positioned IT staff in the Bank of America Building, the old JC Penney building along Kentucky Street and two and a half floors of The Ledger building. According to the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website, Publix bought the block-long, limestone structure in January for $8.6 million.
Scruggs said the grocery chain behemoth employs about 1,200 IT workers currently in the downtown area. He added that between the old JC Penney and Maas Brothers/Burdines buildings alone, there is 260,000 square feet of office space.
The Florida Citrus Mutual tear-down will create more parking for Publix employees. The site plan includes a small park-like setting along Orange Street, a pedestrian plaza, improvements in stormwater drainage, landscaping and tree mitigation. They will utilize both existing mature trees and will also plant smaller, understory trees.
When the plan for surface parking on the property was presented a year ago, both the city staff and commissioners expressed concern about using prime downtown real estate for surface parking. But minds have changed as city officials learned more about the scope of Publix’ downtown expansion, according to Jason Willey, the city’s manager of strategic projects.
Jim Edwards ran the Lakeland Downtown Development Agency and Community Redevelopment Agency in the 1980s and 1990s and was, in large part, responsible for downtown’s renaissance and preserving its charm. He now sits on the board of Historic Lakeland, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to historic preservation.
He said he and the board hope that the building will be photographed in detail before it is torn down.
“We know every building cannot be kept,” Edwards said. “We agree with the city’s Historic Preservation Board — it would be ideal if it was documented before it’s destroyed. We did send a letter to Publix last week, asking that they do document the building before demolition takes place.”
Edwards noted the historic significance of the building because of its ties to the citrus industry and its architect.
“Given the significance of that industry to Lakeland and Polk County, the building has historic significance,” Edwards said. “It’s kind of an art-deco, modern style and Dean was a talented designer that used that form in Publix’s own headquarters.”
Edwards, who has seen the rise and fall of various businesses and buildings downtown in his lifetime, said it might not stay a parking lot forever.
“Ultimately, the value will cause that to be developed into something more substantial,” he said.
Publix officials will have to apply for a permit before demolition can begin. There is no word on their timetable for that.
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