Building Up Jax

From “Central Park” to Empty Park: The Unity Plaza Story

Unity Plaza, Jacksonville, FL

When initially proposed, Unity Plaza was supposed to be the new central park for the Riverside and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

But in the three years since its launch, it has still failed to deliver on what was expected.

The plaza’s history began in 2005, when NAI Hallmark Partners acquired the land surrounding a city retention pond. The city and NAI Hallmark entered a partnership wherein the city would let the developers build a new multi-use space around their retention pond, and NAI Hallmark would also develop a multifamily apartment complex as part of the project.

Around the turn of the decade, the city began work on expanding the retention pond and adding a fountain. NAI Hallmark, meanwhile, began preparing their vision, studying successful parks from other major cities.

In 2012, plans for 220 Riverside and Unity Plaza gained city approval and development moved forward. A nonprofit group was created by NAI Hallmark, and the city donated the retention pond and its surrounding land to the group. Construction was completed by 2014, and Unity Plaza opened to the public in early 2015.

The plaza featured several amenities including the reconfigured pond with a central fountain, prominent signage, public restrooms, an ATM, green space, and an open-air amphitheater. Three restaurants sat adjacent to the park on the ground level of 220 Riverside, with two upscale eateries including a concept from Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga.

The project cost just over $10 million to complete, with the city kicking in around $3 million for both development and the nonprofit group’s formation.

NAI Hallmark promised “thousands” of events to come at Unity Plaza, and professed their ambitious belief that millions of people would venture through the plaza each year.

At launch, several proposed aspects of the plaza were missing; this included a beer garden, floating decks on the pond, retail kiosks, and a bike station. And soon it would be clear that those thousands of events were missing, as well.

The plaza hosted, and continues to host, popular events such as morning yoga on the lawn. Weekly live music events in the amphitheater showed promise but failed to deliver on big acts.

And it soon became clear that NAI Hallmark had guessed wrong on which tenants to sign for its retail space. In an area inundated primarily with young people, they opted to bring in two expensive, executive-lunch options (Sbraga & Co., HOBNOB) and a relatively milquetoast pizza place (Brixx Wood Fired Pizza).

Within little more than a year, Sbraga & Co. shut down abruptly – so abruptly, in fact, that all of its furniture still remains where it was.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit group shed staff members and tried to focus on planning events – but still, no big events came through.

Then, last year, the plaza was dealt another blow when HOBNOB first cut back its dining hours, then closed its dining room altogether. It now operates for private events only, utilizing an adjacent unit it had taken over for private events and galleries.

Today, Brixx remains as the only tenant in Unity Plaza. Live music events have become fewer and farther between. Rather than thousands, it would be more appropriate to describe the plaza as having “dozens of events.”

There’s still hope left for the struggling plaza, though. The surrounding area continues to grow, with work on a new distillery continuing just across the street and Brooklyn Station about to expand. And the addition of a pedestrian pathway on the Fuller Warren Bridge, plus eventual Skyway expansions, should bring more foot traffic to Riverside Ave. in the coming years.

But for now, while 220 Riverside is a lively apartment complex filled with young professionals, Unity Plaza is pretty dead.

1 Comment

  1. Unity Plaza is a dud. I went there once for a walk and found it very uninviting. The concrete amphitheater is uncomfortable and dangerous. In fact, during that event,an older women mistepped trying to walk down the steps and fell flat on her face. Two steps down. EMT had to be called and I know she had broken bones. Not inviting, no trees, not well orchestrated.

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The Coastal
The Coastal is Jacksonville's newest magazine, founded in 2015 to provide news, reviews, and things to do for young people on the First Coast.