What Kind of City?
This should be couched by saying “I live at the beach”, because I do. I won’t make any apologies for that, it’s just a fact. Not ON the beach, mind you, but east of the Intercoastal Waterway. Sort of a “full disclosure” kind of thing.
But as the city elections draw inexorably nearer -- and March 2011 is only 15 months away -- there will be a great deal of discussion about Downtown Jacksonville, as there has been in every election cycle since long before I came to town. I know this as a journalist, it’s a question I’ve asked time and again of candidates, a string of city council presidents, multiple mayors, and other community leaders. And it’s a question that always seems to have the same answer, but not an easy solution.
When you talk to people who are long-time residents of the city, most can recall when downtown was a thriving shopping area with multiple local specialty shops and some major, but in some cases now-defunct, chain stores. I hear references to this shoe store or that men’s clothier, and as you know, what is now City Hall was once a thriving department store. Now, most the restaurants downtown almost seem to have a “school cafeteria” mentality … open for breakfast and lunch … because there is not the customer base to make a dinner service profitable. And as you can imagine, and most of you know, once people have fought through to traffic and the construction to get back to the beach, or over to Mandarin or Orange Park, or to their Southside townhouse, it’s extraordinarily difficult to convince them to turn around and head back to the core city to go to dinner.
It’s no secret that, except for some special events, the sidewalks in downtown kinda roll up precisely at 6:00. Those who work downtown are long since in their cars crawling slowly out Butler Boulevard, creeping along I-295, or stopping and starting through the lights on Southside Boulevard.
And yet, we talk about downtown. “What will it take to make it vital, bring back shopping, be a destination for dinner or later?” we seem to ask incessantly. The answer is fairly simple, and very complex all at once.
The popular thinking is that a critical mass of about 10,000 people will be what it takes for there to be a customer base for all those other things. Shopping, dining, nightlife. Still, those are amenities for people of a fairly narrow demographic … middle to upper income and no children, whether they’re young urban pioneers or empty nesters looking for urban living. To bring families with children, there will have to be places to play, good schools, and perhaps most importantly, a feeling of being safe when you are out on the streets. Those things are in short supply downtown at the present time. But it’s a sure bet that particularly in this economic climate investors in or potential owners of trendy shops, restaurants, and nightspots are going to look at downtown and say “where are the customers?”
And it’s a fair question.
Now, none of this is anything new or earth shattering. I can write it pretty much from memory because we have studied and talked about the issue almost until it’s a mantra. When does it start to happen?
The best answer I’ve had so far is “when we make it a priority.”
And that’s the truth.
Other cities have transformed downtown areas more blighted than Jacksonville into thriving places that people want to go. A destination. Heck, Jacksonville Beach is something of an example of that, and while there is still work to be done there, it’s come a long way in the past couple of decades. To be what everyone seems to want it to be, downtown has to be a place people might want to stay after work before heading back to their suburban homes after the traffic has eased, or someplace where people might actually want to live.
There is a lot of competition, or course. People who enjoy the ocean have a beach at their fingertips, those who enjoy older homes with tons of character and tree-lined streets have Riverside, Ortega, other such areas. Those who enjoy a walkable neighborhood which gives the feel of a downtown have Five Points which fulfills much of that niche. As much as anything, Downtown needs an identity, something that it can point to and say “you’re not going to get this anyplace else.” And that place has to feel safe. And if you want to attract families, parents have to have schools to which they feel comfortable sending their kids.
All that’s not going to be easy, because what it’s going to take are public-private partnerships and incentives. And in times when budgets are strained to the absolute limit for the city to provide the most basic services, police and fire protection topmost among them, incentives have to be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb. But a vital, thriving downtown is not just going to appear. It is going to take a vision for what can make downtown Jacksonville unique, and another vision of how to get there.