11 Ways to Fix Downtown Jacksonville
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.