A Comeback in the Making: Why the Latest Effort to Fix Downtown is the Real Deal
Half a century ago, downtown Jacksonville looked and felt like a much different place than it does today.
The city’s center was just that: a true city center, filled with all the staples of a thriving downtown neighborhood.
There were businesses, shopping destinations, places to live, nightclubs, hotels with lively parties in the lobby – essentially, anything you could desire was within a few blocks.
Hemming Park – then known as Hemming Plaza – was flanked by department stores such as Woolworth’s, Cohen’s, and JCPenney.
The area’s success was a culmination of decades of new developments around a template laid out as early as the post-Great Fire rebuilding effort.
Unfortunately, much of this success ended up being unsustainable.
It was around that time that suburban malls exploded in popularity, with a handful of new ones springing up all around Jacksonville in the ‘60s. These malls started to draw businesses – and shoppers – away from the urban core and into suburbia, starting a decades-long trend of retail sprawling further and further away from the center of the city.
And as the shoppers – and thus much of the foot traffic – started to exit downtown, businesses began to follow suit.
It wasn’t necessarily an overnight transformation, as some of the major downtown department stores stayed open into the 1980s and some businesses stuck it out as well. But there was definitely a notable transition.
By the ‘80s, the streets of downtown were relatively empty. Crime had become a major issue, and would continue to plague the area for the next couple of decades. The few development projects initiated weren’t necessarily the most constructive to the future of the area. This included giant skyscrapers, a new mini-mall on the river (we’ve already talked about the issues with that idea), and the continued expansion and encroachment of the neighboring First Baptist Church.
City leadership took notice, and attempted to solve the problems of downtown Jax – but didn’t have a whole lot of success in doing so.
In the ‘80s, Mayor Jake Godbold initiated efforts to revitalize the area. This led to the creation of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, and the construction of the Landing, but not much else.
In the early ‘90s, a downtown revival plan, dubbed the River City Renaissance plan, was created by then-Mayor Ed Austin and city administrator Lex Hester.
The plan was mired in controversy, and is a big part of why many long-time residents view current comeback efforts through a skeptical lens.
Granted, the RCR plan wasn’t all bad. It gave us the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts, set aside money for stadium renovations needed for the arrival of the Jaguars, and gave funds to the Sulzbacher Center to help with the prevalence of homelessness.
But with a price tag of $235 million, many residents expected more.
Money was set aside for a new convention center, which was never built. Several historic buildings in downtown and neighboring areas were torn down, with no plans to fill the newly-created vacant lots.
Austin’s successor, John Delaney, came up with a new plan of his own: the Better Jacksonville Plan.
Like Austin’s plan, it was crafted with the help of Hester. Unfortunately, it also suffered from similar criticisms and shortcomings.
Through the Better Jacksonville Plan, the downtown area got a new baseball stadium, arena, library, and courthouse.
But it required a half-cent sales tax, and still ended up requiring the use of money from other city funds to resolve a shortage of over $700 million in funding.
The shortcomings of both plans effectively poisoned many long-term residents against the idea of downtown revitalization efforts.
And to be fair, past efforts have definitely not inspired confidence. They’ve thrown money at splashy projects, but never addressed the key issues such as lack of foot traffic and lack of people living downtown.
But now, with a new generation of residents and active interest in rebuilding the city’s center, downtown is poised for one last big attempt at a comeback.
So what makes this attempt different from all of the others?
For one, it’s who’s initiating the rebuilding efforts. Instead of private and public interests competing, we’re starting to see local developers and city officials working together – or at least compromising – to address issues.
We’re seeing this new generation of residents assist in the revitalization efforts and participate enthusiastically in the entire process. When The Volstead was about to close its doors this summer, an outpouring of support and sadness led to a pair of patrons taking over the bar and giving it a new lease on life. In the past, downtown favorites have often been left to die, adding to the sea of empty storefronts.
We’re seeing big-ticket investors, such as Jags owner Shad Khan, actually showing an interest in the urban core instead of continuing the pattern of developing on unused land in the suburbs. Khan’s company will be leading the redevelopment of the long-abandoned Shipyards property into a multi-use lifestyle center, creating an important link between downtown and the sports district.
We have city leadership that wants to see results. Mayor Lenny Curry expressed interest earlier this year in having the city take control of the Landing. While it remains to be seen if this happens or not, it’s hard not to see it as a positive for a venue that’s long been neglected by its current owner.
Meanwhile, the Laura Street Trio buildings will be getting a revamp that will add a Courtyard Marriott and yet another fine-dining establishment, adding to a district that already boasts the presence of Olio, Bellwether, and soon Cowford Chophouse.
And with the momentum created by these projects being announced, other businesses are starting to follow suit and join the revolution by moving into downtown. Eateries such as Kazu Sushi Burrito and The Happy Grilled Cheese have begun filling in vacant retail spots along main streets.
New events and festivals continue to pop up, encouraging the cultural growth of the area and pushing downtown ever closer to forming its own identity.
Most importantly, the key issue of keeping people in the downtown area is finally starting to get addressed. FSCJ is preparing to open its new student housing building on Adams St. The Shipyards and Laura Street Trio projects will both feature large quantities of upscale living space. And as part of the Laura Street Trio project, the old Barnett Bank building will be converted into apartments as well.
More people living downtown, plus elements of nightlife to keep the working crowd around after 5:00, will help the area shed its reputation of being a ghost town at night.
Once these projects are realized, more people are living downtown, and the new downtown-adjacent JTA transportation hub opens and makes getting downtown easier than ever, it’s hard to see a dark future ahead for the area.
Now of course, this comeback is only in its early stages. None of these proposed developments have become reality just yet, and promising development proposals have come and gone plenty in the past – especially downtown.
But this time feels different. This time, there’s more passion, more effort, and quite frankly, more at stake. Jax is on the rise nationally as one of America’s fastest-growing cities, and yet our downtown district lags far behind those of similar cities.
All of us – or at least most of us – seem to be on the same page. We all see that Jacksonville has the potential to be an amazing city, and that it all starts with making our city center something to be proud of.
And though it’s not there yet, we’re finally on the right path.