by Tim Gilmore, 7/10/2020
1. Create Nuclear History
The three want ads appeared side by side in The Boston Globe, July 12, 1974, each topped with a drawing of a conch shell and the imperative to “Create Nuclear History in Florida.” Electrical engineers, quality assurance engineers and “designers and draftsmen, male/female” were to call Jacksonville collect.
“Offshore Power Systems,” the ad explained, “a Westinghouse-Tenneco enterprise, will produce the world’s first floating nuclear power plants in Jacksonville, Florida. We offer more than an exciting position in a unique and progressive industry. We offer the future…your future.”
OPS would build the plants at Jacksonville’s Blount Island. For years the county and the state had fought an illiterate goatherd named Rollians Christopher, for Goat Island, the rattlesnake-infested home of Christopher and a family named the Bartchletts. When Duval County finally won in the late 1950s, they renamed the island for County Attorney J. Henry Blount and transformed it into a military and port facility. Now, in the early 1970s, OPS hoped to built its Blount Island plant “to construct offshore nuclear power stations.” It would be fully operational by 1977 and locate its first plant off the coast of New Jersey.
David Wallace of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration praised the plans, telling The Palm Beach Post in April 1973 that not only could such plants help ward off a national energy crisis, but that “offshore plants could be situated in areas where their effect on ocean waves could serve to build up eroded beaches.”
“Hurricanes will have little effect on the offshore power plant,” said an unnamed spokesman for Tenneco, a diversifying Fortune 500 petroleum company, because “the plant will be low and square.” An enormous breakwater “made of concrete, sand, gravel and boulders,” 209 feet high, 377 feet wide and 400 feet long would guard each power plant.
A 1978 Comptroller General report to Congress assessed the dangers of floating nuclear plants very differently, saying, “The risks of a core-melt accident on a floating barge are 6 to 30 times greater than the risks of such an accident on a land-based plant.”
The saga of Offshore Power Systems ended with a 1975 headline in U.S. News and World Report Magazine, “A City That Reached For Riches and Got Headaches Instead.” It began, “This is the story of what can happen to an American city that rolls out the red carpet for a high-risk industry—and sees its dreams of riches end in frustration and controversy.”
2. You Are Here
It’s a typical hot, wet humid Florida summer morning, the last Sunday in June, each of these bland ugly buildings rising above us in banal anonymity.
Three Oaks Plaza, built from 1972 to ’75, could hardly be more a misnomer. The corporate “office park” is no plaza than park and to name these three squat beige buildings “oaks” is to mock that grandest most beautiful tree.
Vertical black lines of mold and water damage crosshatch the horizontal bands of windows. In the back of the westernmost building, which once housed Jacksonville’s Federal Bureau of Investigation offices, whole six story tall strips of wall are gone. Another in a line of realty companies bought the building in late 2019, immediately gutted it and “removed external elements.” It looks like someone peeled them off like those built-in keys that unroll sardine cans. Exposed girders stare away from Arlington Expressway, leering at the Arlington neighborhood long called “Sin City,” behind the treeline from Three Oaks.
Palm trees grow up against these buildings and vast flats of asphalt parking lots stretch between them. There’s almost nothing human about this strange abandoned address, only the bags of discarded trash and graffiti. Otherwise some kind of anti-human 1970s software program must have built this place, if you can call it a place, for automobiles and fax machines and vistas of identical office cubicles. But not for people.
Still, squatters live here. Someone’s thrown desks and mattresses from windows. Somebody sets the blazes that bring out the fire department. Somebody graffiti’d the Roswell alien on the plywood in a window and somebody placed the plywood.
Besides, somebody scrawled, across the plywood that covers the entrance to 7800 Arlington Expressway, the easternmost building, “You Are Here.” It’s the truest human statement. You are. You are always here.
3. Atomic Age Prosperity
Jacksonville lured Offshore Power Systems to town in 1971. The company represented the future—romantic, exotic and nuclear, “the atomic age.” The 1973 Oil Crisis, beginning when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries launched an oil embargo to punish countries supporting Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, helped OPS’s state-of-emergency rhetoric catch hold. The public consciousness hadn’t yet, of course, associated nuclear power with the power plant disasters at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.
In the beginning, OPS promised to bring the city 10,000 new jobs. So Jacksonville offered millions. Jack McWethy’s 1975 U.S. News & World Report story claimed the city skirted bankruptcy to lure the company, only to lose the whole enterprise. The company would build dozens of floating plants in Jacksonville, tow them out to sea, position them off the U.S. coastline and shoot electricity hundreds of miles into the interior.
“Now,” McWethy’s story said, “demand for the plants has all but vanished. So have the dreams of quick prosperity for Jacksonville.”
As Nate Monroe says in his October 23, 2019 Florida Times-Union commentary, “The Hucksters Came After JEA—and City—Once Before: Their Last Great Idea Was Floating Nuclear Power Plants,” “Jacksonville was fresh off a civic triumph it would tout for decades to come: The city-county consolidation voters approved a few years earlier had in one fell swoop created the largest city by landmass in the continental United States , and one of the most populous. The business leaders who helped make this happen were ready to showcase this rejuvenated River City on a national stage—and to make money. This project, they believed, would accomplish both.”
Consolidation was supposed to be the answer to the disaccreditation of Duval County public schools, enduring and worsening racial inequities and deep city corruption. Jacksonville had gone from branding itself, in an attempt to lure insurance companies, “the Hartford of the South” to “the Bold New City of the South.” This national humiliation regarding Offshore Power Systems was simply not supposed to be.
Roy Bertke of The Tampa Tribune quoted Jacksonville Mayor Hans Tanzler, on August 31, 1975, saying, “Everybody is raising holy hell about the story.” Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce President Fred Schultz said, “I’m a subscriber to U.S. News and have always been an admirer of the magazine. But this is one of the worst pieces of journalism I have read in a long while.” He called the story “yellow journalism.”
The story quoted an unnamed Jacksonville official, saying, “The Chamber of Commerce—and these are the people who run this city—just went crazy over this OPS thing. Just about every businessman in town thought he was going to get rich. It became an issue like motherhood and the American flag—you didn’t dare say you were against any part of the package our city was offering.”
Specifically, since 1972, Jacksonville had given OPS 850 acres of industrial land, promised to build the company a $137 million bridge, promised to buy two OPS nuclear power plants for its own electrical usage at $2.2 billion ($13.5 billion in today’s currency), spent more than a million dollars for enriched uranium for the Jacksonville floating plants, which it was suddenly clear would never be built, spent $11 million for a vocational education center to train thousands of employees and offered to sell $180 million of bonds, low interest and tax exempt, for OPS pocket money.
U.S. News & World Report reported that Jacksonville had offered Offshore Power Systems close to $2.7 billion, about $16.5 billion in today’s money, for a dubious business prospectus. In September 2019, the Jacksonville City Council, 35 years after the OPS failure, approved a $1.2 billion budget. In the early 1970s, Jacksonville promised a brand new company 13.75 times the city’s total budget 35 years later to help it build dozens of nuclear power plants out in the Atlantic Ocean in the face of hurricanes.
Mayor Tanzler offered to rebut the U.S. News & World Report story, point by point and the unnamed Jacksonville resident local newspapers outed as the improbably named Hartley Lord, described as “a thorn in the side of the Jacksonville Electric Authority for some time.” Local sources described Lord as “a student and semi-retired,” who “came to Jacksonville 15 years ago from New York City to build” the “first bowling alley” in a “black neighborhood.” Lord called the JEA “the most poorly run business in the free enterprise system.” Meanwhile Tanzler told The Tampa Times, the United States depended on the building of floating nuclear power plants, saying, “We’re going to need nuclear power generation in the future because I just can’t see this country putting all its dollars overseas to pay for oil to generate electricity.”
Tanzler said Jacksonville was planning the $137 million bridge from the mainland to Goat Island, now Blount Island, whether or not OPS came to town. When the Jacksonville Transportation Authority finally built the Dames Point Bridge in the late 1980s, it landed on the Dames Point Peninsula just next to Goat/Blount Island. Tanzler said the $11 million for a vocational education center meant Florida Junior College’s new Downtown Campus. Newspapers called it “Jacksonville Junior College” and quoted Tanzler saying the city would pay only $500,000 with the state supplying the rest.
Lewis Winnard, director of the Jacksonville Electric Authority, said the city had invested $2.6 million in nuclear fuel, but had ordered it from the United States government, which informed the JEA its expenditure would be returned.
Compared to the readership of U.S. News & World Report, few readers digested Jacksonville’s rebuttals in Tampa and Jacksonville publications. Whatever details were true, the city threw itself desperately at Offshore Power Systems, a young company that lured multiple cities, made big promises, then dissipated. Jacksonville fell hardest and most desperately and had nothing to show for its loss but pitiful excuses. Oh, and depending on whether you believed the mayor’s rationales and timelines, eventually, a new central junior college campus, a bridge, and three squat office buildings on Arlington Expressway.
In his 2004 book Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, James Crooks writes of how Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel “blew the whistle on OPS,” reporting that the city’s proposed contract with the company threatened “the ability of the JEA to continue to operate the municipal electric system.” Crooks writes of the OPS debacle as a consequence of Jacksonville’s “‘old boy’ network,” including the editorial support of both city newspapers, the lobbying for OPS by Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, and conflicting business deals for the Jacksonville Port Authority, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, city businesses including Gulf Life Insurance Company, Paxson Electric Company and Florida Rock Industries. Clearly, Consolidation had not ended corruption in this city.
4. No Small Leases, Mysteries Not Worth Solving
The third building, the westernmost, was built for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1975. The FBI migrated to offices on Gate Parkway in 2009. It was here the FBI tracked the story told in the 2020 HBO docuseries McMillion$. Throughout the 1990s, McDonald’s fast-food restaurants gave prizes through a promotional version of the classic board game Monopoly. Nobody inside McDonald’s realized someone was stealing $24 million worth of winning tickets and selling them to friends and family. These days, the only mystery in the old FBI Building is who threw the mattress out the window and from which floor. It’s a mystery nobody deems worth solving.
Late February 2016, The Jacksonville Daily Record reported Three Oaks Plaza would “rebrand” itself “Omega Oaks.” Omega Oaks excluded the former FBI building, saying “Omega Oaks I is 96,541 square feet and Omega Oaks II is 91,396 square feet. That totals 187,937 square feet, a significant available space in the market.”
Colliers International Northeast Florida sought tenants “to take at least half of a building.” Colliers President Bob Selton said, “The goal is not to do small leases.” Colliers met its goal: it did no leases at all.
“Property records indicate,” Karen Brune Mathis of the Daily Record wrote, “the Arlington Expressway property was sold in the early 1980s and several times since.”
In October 2019, Mathis wrote that a Miami based company, Bnei Zipora Inc., had sold the building to a Canadian company, Kozman Realty, who immediately contracted a wrecking company to gut it and remove strips of the outside wall panels. Now the plan is to redevelop the old building into low-incoming housing units.
So many more transactions never make official records. In every city are cities unto themselves and this is one. Somebody sold his soul to the Devil up in these broad heights and someone sold his soul to God. What transpired after those transactions, who knows?
A sign says I’m to wait at the gate and check with higher authorities. Nobody comes down. I know. I’ve tried and I’ve waited. Time and again. No secret official’s come down beneath the rotten sodium arc light to scan my badge and take my testimony.
Jessica, a former student at Concorde Career Institute in 7960, the middle building, rode the elevator once, skipping dental classes she’d decided no longer to attend, hovering up to higher floors. She came back later after Concorde cleared out. Doors that still opened shocked her. Why would they? They opened to empty floors where anyone could, she imagined, a) hide money, b) shoot heroin, c) have an adulterous affair with a co-worker or someone else who’d paid for a class and found the program useless, d) run toward an open window or ledge and dive off.
Jessica said she wanted to answer no questions about “c.”
Even more eye-opening, or consciousness-expanding, or mind-boggling, she’d never considered how many doors a city might open to unimaginable exits, next chapters, secret rooms, secret societies, secret lives, secret pasts.
TV news crews come out every time the fire department does. Fire in former FBI offices makes good television. In the neighborhood nicknamed “Sin City” behind Three Oaks Plaza, residents sip beer and watch the conflagrations. Matt, who lives on Hare Avenue, several blocks behind the complex, wandered up inside the middle building once. He says he saw a dog up there. Some kind of shepherd or tall terrier. He didn’t know which. Just knew he’d seen a dog, watching him, up on the fifth floor.