Another Shot at Downtown
Laura Street, the Southbank, Metropolitan Park, Friendship Fountain. In the last month or so, the Peyton administration has announced proposals for each of these areas as part of an ongoing effort to revitalize downtown.
The mayor has introduced legislation to spend $23 million of three of the projects, as was reported earlier this week in “The Jacksonville Observer.” According to the news release from the Mayor’s office, the latter three of those were “selected based on reprioritization and best need for downtown Jacksonville.”
In an effort to deflect the argument that, so soon after a heated debate over a property tax increase, and with many still stinging from the imposition of storm water, trash, and other fees imposed in 2007, the administration says the money is in a capital improvement budget, and it can’t be transferred to the city’s operating budget. The Mayor is lobbying members of the city council to vote for the funding, and nine have signed on. One more is all that’s needed.
The Mayor’s office says there is more than $215 million in private investment in the Southbank area, accounting for a little less than 10 percent of the residential capacity that experts says would bring downtown residency to a “critical mass”. Met Park is certainly in need of repair. The pavilion leaks, and the shelters for the park benches have withstood years of sun and weather. It could be a showplace in the downtown sports district. And Friendship Fountain, if we’re going to keep it, needs to be repaired and make into the focal point of the Southbank it once was. So the projects are worthy, and likely nobody disputes that.
The Laura Street project, which would turn Laura Street between Hemming Plaza and the Landing into a two-way street with additional room for is envisioned to make Laura Street a place where people will want to walk and shop and stop for a bite, should there be shops and restaurants when it’s all done. The beginnings, perhaps, of the destination that downtown needs to be to make it viable again. The question is, then, is this the right time to undertake these efforts?
I had an interesting conversation Wednesday with John Meserve, the newest member of the Jacksonville City Council, on “The Jacksonville Observer Radio Show.” Councilman Meserve said during the course of the interview that the city council has some difficult choices to make in the coming budget year, because tax receipts were not likely to increase due to growth, and spending has been cut down to the bone. Money is going to be extremely tight at city call for the next couple of years, by most accounts. So it’s understandable that some members are approaching this legislation to spend money on downtown with a wary eye. With every seat up for re-election in 2011, members seeking re-election or another office will need to be able to defend any vote to spend that $23 million. And in the end, it all comes back to priorities.
There is a school of thought that the answer to downtown revitalization is making it a priority. It would appear that Mayor Peyton has done that, at least to some extent, with these plans. “These improvement projects are vital to the continuing revitalization of downtown and will only enhance our public spaces and river access to our residents and more than 13 million visitors who visit downtown each year,” Mayor Peyton’s news release reads. “We currently have a very competitive bid market that will translate into better utilization of these downtown funds to enable downtown to be in an ideal position post-recession to attract future private capital investment.”
Rather than grandiose plans, these seem to be targeted, manageable projects, and maybe that’s the right way to approach the downtown dilemma … in small bites rather than huge, sweeping projects. If success breeds success, then focusing on some of the more visible pieces and showing it can be done could mean greater acceptance the next time one of the larger projects is proposed. Right now, those don’t have the best track record on the planet, and being able to show some progress might begin to turn the public perception around.
Mayor Peyton is also likely correct that leaving them to further deteriorate would not make the area attractive to new development when the recession ends. Indicators are that’s not likely to happen until the second half of 2010 at the very earliest, and then it will be very slow. Developers are likely to be very cautious when they start looking for new projects, and if the city hasn’t made any investment in downtown, it certainly seems unlikely that a developer would either.
Yes, there are difficult choices to be made, but maybe one of those difficult choice is to say “yes” to repairing some of our riverfront features in a time of tight budgets. Is it the right time? No matter when it’s done, there will be those who say there should be other priorities. But if downtown is to be the focal point of our fair city, then it needs to be brought into focus. And the further it declines, the more it will cost to repair.