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11 Ways to Fix Downtown Jacksonville

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Downtown Jacksonville and what we should be doing to fix it.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Rather than a “Grand Plan” intended to transform Downtown Jacksonville in one fell swoop, an incremental approach would allow the City to put some low cost fixes in place while waiting for the economy to turn around. We might have a clearer path to follow if we allowed organic change to play out over the next few years. A revitalization effort that unfolded naturally and in response to market forces might be superior to one that originated from a master plan.

2. Concentrate on the low hanging fruit and do the common sense things that are likely to produce the best result for the least amount of money. As Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage suggested (he’s not always my cup of tea but when he’s right, he’s right), the City should buy a couple of pressure washers and some paint. Upgrade the property safety (and appearance) codes and then enforce them. Pick up litter, keep the City’s landscaped property well manicured and fix the Southbank Riverwalk (although I kind of like Friendship Fountain the way it is).

3. There are three populations that support any Downtown: Those who work there, those who live there and those who visit. The Times-Union reports there are 55,000 people who work Downtown but only 2,500 who live there. If these numbers are correct, those who work Downtown constitute a large pool of potential new residents that should be tapped into. If it turns out these prospective tenants are unwilling to relocate Downtown because it’s too expensive or is otherwise unattractive, then we will have gone a long way toward identifying whatever problems underlie the issue of Downtown livability.

4. On a related note, be kind to developers with the high-rise apartment buildings who are trying to make Downtown more livable. This is especially true for those that received City backed financing and who now find themselves trying to stay afloat in a deteriorating real estate market. Some are asking the City to lighten their burden by allowing them to make interest-only loan payments until the market improves. If local leaders make demands that these developers are unable to meet, our City will get a reputation for being unreasonable. Cut these developers some slack.

5. To bring more visitors to Downtown, especially those drawn from the lucrative tourist market, some have argued we should invest in a new and improved convention center. But a new convention center only makes sense if the Tourist Development Council can demonstrate that a level of demand exists sufficient to retire the revenue bonds necessary to finance it. If we do build a new convention center it should be configured to hold a number of smaller events simultaneously and should incorporate all the latest video conferencing technology. Being able to do smaller conferences and conventions exceptionally well might be the niche market that Jacksonville needs to pursue.

6. If what we’re looking for is to establish a thriving ‘core’ at the center of our city, then we need to expand our definition of ‘Downtown’ to include nearby neighborhoods that are vital in this effort. Downtown proper should be the locus of office based commerce, government, high rise living and the major sports and performance venues. For a thriving mercantile and entertainment district in close proximity to Downtown, we should be thinking about the Five Points area of Riverside, the Southbank and San Marco Square. These areas work because they are street level, brightly lit and have lots of parking. If the City wants to be inclusive they should draw Brooklyn, Lavilla and Springfield into the mix as well.

7. The areas under the Fuller Warren Bridge immediately East and West of Park Street look like open cesspools. I once saw a truck that hauls sewage emptying its tank into “Lake Cesspool West”. It turns out they had a contract to haul non-toxic wastewater from a FDOT construction site nearby…but still. Nobody passing these eyesores would be persuaded that Jacksonville is serious about its Downtown core. While they’re at it, the City needs to take a serious look at the perimeter of downtown for other aesthetically challenged streetscapes.

8. The City of Jacksonville should take a lesson from the community based efforts that have turned around Riverside and Five Points. For years Riverside was treated like a red-headed stepchild. It wasn’t until community leaders created Riverside Avondale Preservation 35 years ago that things began to turn around. Last year a group of visionaries led by Dr. Wayne Wood and Doug Coleman launched the Riverside Arts Market as a project of Riverside Avondale Preservation. Every Saturday from March through December the area under the Fuller Warren Bridge at Riverside Avenue is alive with artists, artisans and organic produce vendors. The Downtown Art Walk is another example of how creative thinking can create a new dynamic for an urban neighborhood.

9. Build a decent upscale grocery store somewhere in the Southbank area between the St. Johns River and I-95. Such a location would be accessible from San Marco and St. Nicholas as well as Downtown and would create the essential anchor that every community needs to build around. Riverside had no neighborhood grocery store for over 30 years and languished as a result. When Publix opened its new store in 2001 it was the catalyst for a number of commercial and residential projects throughout the area and the impetus for a revitalized Five Points shopping district.

10. Like it or not, the perception among many northeast Florida residents is that downtown Jacksonville is unsafe. More police and a highly visible City run security force could help alter this perception. Riverside Avondale Preservation has recently suggested to the JSO that it secure several dozen AmeriCorps volunteers to aid in this effort. Each ‘full time’ volunteer would cost the City less than $2,000 a year and could provide the level of security that’s currently missing. (And yes, I know that the concept of a paid ‘volunteer’ is a misnomer, especially one funded by a Federal grant).

11. I’ve saved the most controversial item for last: Downtown will always have an image problem as long as there are large numbers homeless roaming the streets. When I refer to the ‘homeless’ I’m not talking abut families who are without shelter because a breadwinner lost her job. Folks like these respond well to temporary assistance and can get back on their feet. I’m talking about those who’ve become habituated to life on the street and who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse problems or both. Having worked in and around Downtown, and as someone who lives in Riverside, I can tell you that the homeless have an affect on the neighborhoods they inhabit. While we need to be thoughtful and compassionate, encouraging the homeless to relocate from Downtown is just good policy.

8 Responses »

  1. Number 10 and 11 are by far the biggest "image" problems for downtown. The Mayor made a major mistake in using money to do upgrades to Met Park instead of using it to develop the daytime homeless center, that could have gone a long ways towards addressing both of these.

    Number 3 is key not because those 55,000 workers "could" become residents, but because they "are" current customers for the existing businesses and restaurants. Forget worrying about what it would take to get them to move downtown, we need to figure out what it would take to get some of them to simply stay downtown for a few hours after work every once in awhile to eat, drink or shop.

  2. You are correct about the grocery store.......but a publix,winn-dixie or specialty market is needed in the core of the "working area downtown". Easier said than done but needed.

    Also, there needs to be "beat cops" stationed in the downtown area from
    Hemming Plaza to the Landing from 6pm-2am.......with a precinct station in the Landing.......Specially selected officers in non police type uniforms but regular sworn officers.

    And finally, since our greatest asset is the River, use it more for events and use some imagination for marketing and promoting what gives our city its name, THE RIVER CITY....Whoops, almost forgot....work closely with the "upscale restaurant owners" already in place downtown to provide marketing support for the restaurants that cater to the downtown and tourist trade.

  3. Generally good ideas. I especially liked #1 and #5. Huge "death star" developments like convention centers and football stadia aren't very helpful to downtowns, because they attract people who (a) aren't there 365 days a year (and thus cannot do much to help neighborhood businesses) and (b) don't necessarily want to go anyplace but their cars (in the case of stadia) or hotel rooms (in the case of conventioneers). Instead, focus on developing street by street, block by block.

    I quibble somewhat with #6. I think San Marco and Riverside are in much better shape than downtown already, so I don't think that the good effects of making them even better off really trickles down to downtown. More generally, in the places I have lived I haven't noticed much correlation between the prosperity of near-downtown neighborhoods and the prosperity of downtown itself. Some places have strong near-downtown areas and a weak downtown (like Jacksonville itself, also Atlanta) and others have strong downtowns surrounded by less prosperous areas (like Philadelphia and Savannah).

  4. Apparently 55,000 downtown workers vote with their feet and leave.
    Lotta $ spent to create an urban life for the few who want it.
    Already built a Convention Center that's something of a dud.
    Americorp "volunteers" usually duds that upset the people actually doing the work while they watch the duds getting paid for zip.
    How about moving the homeless shelter and a branch library out by the Amtrak station? They would probably follow the free food and after a period of days could "win" a free one way train ticket!)
    "Interest only" for the real estate developers? What next? Loan them the $ to pay the interest?

    About 25% of us "homeowners" have paid off our mortgage and actually own our home, worked hard, done without some things, lived at bit below our means, and saved a few dollars, We're getting XX#**+XX sick of being ripped and conned by la-la land socialists and greedy capitalists.

    You wanna live in an artsy-craftsy cutesy-poo, urban downtown? Great! You go pay for it!

  5. Tell us how you feel, Dean. 😀

    I've lived in Jacksonville since 1970, coming here from a small southern town. It's been my consternation to try and figure out just what the people here call Jacksonville. Putting the consolidation aside, I thought that "Downtown" was the area from about Davis St., in the west, to about Washington St. to the East; and the river bank to the south, to about State Street, to the north.

    The rest of all of this conglomeration is either suburb housing developments or the remnants of other communities. That makes it rather clear to me where Downtown re-development money is to be spent. And, yes, most of the population does consider that area a dangerous place to be, especially after dark.

    If the city wants people to live there, the only option is to build it upwards. If people live there, they will need parking and transportation, entertainment, stores to obtain clothing, etc. If people from outside of the area are to be attracted to it for shopping or entertainment, they well have to have access to the very same things. Even a movie theater needs parking for its customers.

    In my small-town mind, a downtown isn't for people to live. They are places for people to have businesses. Their purpose isn't to attract foreigners but to serve the people of the community. I ask you, where, from the football Stadium to the Acosta Bridge is any of the "valuable" waterfront dedicated to the people of Jacksonville? If it is so valuable, why is it tied up by government buildings and private business? Where is the welcoming in that small area that would encourage the citizens to take advantage.

    It makes me wonder who really owns Jacksonville and why they want it prettied up? Who is supposed to be the beneficiary? It's all been taken away. If down town is to be revitalized, it's going to have to be given back to the people.

  6. What is described as downtown Jacksonville moved in the late 70's to what is known as Regency Square. In the 80's it moved again to the Avenues Mall. Now it has moved again to Town Centre. Chasing these people and corralling them to the downtown is impossible. The downtown as we know it nationwide has disappeared.

    If you are going to rejuvenate the downtown, remove the homeless in Hemming Plaza. The city's response was to move 10 empty police cars to the area. FUNNY. We built the downtown library for the public but turned the $80 million dollar building over to the homeless. GOOD JOB.

    Having lived in Jacksonville since '64 I can remember the days of a wonderful downtown. It was full of life and smelled of fresh baked bread. Crowds of people made their way to the downtown to shop and enjoy life.

  7. It is time to build COWFORD entertainment park at Metropark. Our first asset in downtown Jacksonville is our waterfront. The northbank riverwalk was a terrific move and will be in the future. We need waterfront events and cheap or free water taxis to turn this town upside down. The Mayor's goofy 2 million dollar renovation of three blocks is ridiculous. Who thinks of these things? A walkway to homeless- WOW.

    I think a complete makeover of the Metro Park area is necessary. The Mayor's 2 million (actually our 2 million) could have gone a long way there. I would install a GIANT ferris wheel that could be seen from many locations to draw people to this location. Next, I would build 2-story buildings like old town Jacksonville 1800's and allow people to move into them if they would work the shops below. These artisans and entrepreneurs would cover the building and mortgage. It would be the biggest draw in the country. Hell, call it COWFORD. Kind of part entertainment, part history, part learning experience for children. This would include a petting zoo, six gun battles, walking history tours, shops to buy things, sailing and canoeing, woodworking shop, horseshoe making, and the works...

    Everyone must wear period dress.

    Now to excite the crowds, a giant lift to carry you up and across the river to the Southbank empty lot. Let's get creative. I know this will bring the people. The Mayor just commits the land, the lift, the ferris wheel and the rest is down with investor capital from those who will work it. LET'S GET BUILDING!

  8. Our Mayor seems to think that putting money into Met Park is going to somehow attract people to downtown. To accomplish this he decided to take $3.5 million that was set aside to address the parking issues at the Landing and reallocate it to the Met Park project (close to a mile from the center of downtown).

    Does anybody REALLY believe that we are going to see a bigger downtown impact from Met Park upgrades than we would from a parking fix for the Landing? Not to mention that what he did may be illegal, since the money was dedicated to the Landing parking issue by ordinance in the settlement agreement between the City, Humana, Kuhn and the Landing.