Living Downtown in the Church District can be a lot like living in the middle of nowhere.
The closest grocery store is a far walk, and almost pointless drive, from virtually all of the major apartment buildings. After five in the afternoon, your choices on places to go out to eat are limited.
Over the past three years, I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve bought dinner at 7/11.
The traffic traveling down Union offers a unique pinch point of vehicles traveling through Downtown Jacksonville, and I believe this could be the silver bullet to the life-force vampire that is our food desert.
The Downtown businesses see almost zero percent of this traffic; in other words, it’s a pass through, but we know that, right?
We need to build the LaVilla, Church and Cathedral areas into fun and vibrant places to live, work, and play while brightening up the face of the city. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from wearing board shorts and expecting to be taken seriously, it’s that image matters, and sometimes you need to wear a tie with your board shorts.
This is a kickass area, it just needs some love. The block of 311 W. Ashley St. offers a unique opportunity for investment in the community that will return for decades to come. The Skyway expansion going North and into Riverside adds to the possibilities of excellent performances both monetarily and in the quality of life for those on the North cliff edge of Downtown commerce. The fantastic staff at JTA are stepping it up for the city, and I predict the community will appreciate it for as long as it lasts and moves forward. All of these straphangers are going to see this side of our city in an inrush, and we would be wise to make it as inviting as possible. Our “Downtown Edge” deserves and needs an economic Renaissance.
Savita Jones is one person making Leonardo-like moves improving the area into a hotspot of choice and variety. You may remember her company, GoKart Shopping, from the Florida Times-Union article congratulating her big win at the 2015 One Spark contest. Her idea was delivering food and beer to tailgate parties at the stadium exclusively on a golf cart. After the competition, her business took off. Since then, she has capitalized on several other ventures. Savita invested in a brick and mortar on the block of 311 W. Ashley in the Church District, they’re fitting right in and busy day and night until eleven when they close.
Jenkins BBQ is another business right around the corner on Pearl that has done extremely well in the neighborhood. They have been in business on this block for decades and stay open till midnight or one in the morning if you haven’t been there you must. Y’all don’t have to, but you must. Oh man, I just got drool on my keyboard … worth it.
The two businesses are teaming up this weekend for a neighborhood clean up, so far lots of community organizers are getting involved. It’s from 9-12 PM Saturday, May 27th. Check their Facebook page for updates.
There is a real potential to make Downtown badass, we just need a plan, and my friends inspired it. We need to focus on building commerce downtown and taking advantage of the people passing through every day to cross The Matthews Bridge.
The way to do that is an invitation by image and access with signage. Right now from the I-95, I-10 all the way to the east side of Arlington is unfriendly to commerce both by the lack of access and invite. We should be able to get the people sitting in traffic to stop and take a break. To do that we need to envision an area that is ready for economic growth to take hold of this opportunity.
Close your eyes and conjure your ideal city face and landscape, woosaaah. Any luck? Let me know how that works out. Back to work. People don’t want to travel the 10 or 11 blocks to the bay to get a decent quick dinner or grab some fresh groceries. Our home is Downtown, people want to live here because of access, and there’s almost none. Plus, all of that stuff is out of the way in every way; unless your place has reserved parking, it can make driving virtually pointless.
Getting the traffic to stop in our micro-economy is key to more accessibility for locals. The solution is to make creative efforts to bring life to the edge of Downtown – you know, the side everyone sees. Right now it looks like the side of a house that hasn’t been painted and has a crazy rabid dog shimmering with madness. We need to fix that if we want to see the area grow and we can do that with public and private investments, but mostly, public. The traveling public. Let’s face it; there’s more of them then there are of us, so let’s take their money. (Just kidding.)
But seriously, if we can get some of that, we could use a closer grocery store that’s open when we’re off work. To boot, who road trips every year from New England when it gets too cold, and they don’t want to carry heavy coats? People with lots of money. I’ve been all over this country, and they seem to have the most, mostly … Look up wealth by zip code; the census has a lot of splendid evidence to back this up. But they pass right by, never thinking twice about it and I say we need to loudly yell at them to stop for a second and chill Downtown.
We need to do this and must to be ready for the party when our guest arrives. We need to expand the Downtown Investment Authority to 1.5 million doubling the current amount. Why? Because it’s a proven model for success and we need to give them all the resources we can if we want to be the best. If we don’t have the money, we need to dig for some couch change and vacuum pennies because the ROI is too good to pass up.
The Downtown neighborhood needs people to stop in at night. When places are open at night, the Downtown residences have a place to go as well. Like right now, as I’m writing this, I’m really in the mood for ice cream, and that’s a pipe dream or a walk up to 7/11 five blocks south in the eerie lightless night.
To that point, we need lights! We need to liven LaVilla, Church, and Cathedral. Even if it’s just with lights, that must be the first hot iron strike; these buildings need to shine.
Now we need more art, and we also need more signs. With all of these churches, it would be regal and inviting; trust me, it would catch the eye. The Landing is an okay draw from the State and Union traffic inhabitants, but when was the last time a Jacksonville resident said, ”Oh I know, let’s go to the Landing!” That’s right: never. That place smells like pee, and it reminds me of a mall in the ‘90s, from the late ‘70s, that no one liked. Hmm… Mallrats was a good movie though. Anyway, don’t want to get too taken away by great Kevin Smith movies, back to Jacksonville, we need ice cream, and smoothies damn it!
For every building, including empty ones downtown in the LaVilla, Church and Cathedral districts, we need immediate permits for signage on State and Union to be easily ready so businesses can move in and get started serving the region. Real estate jockeys could use the sign space to attract new entrepreneurs to the zones.
Ah, the circle of life is numerous and infinite. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba, there comes a lion. God, I hope everyone is getting these movie references, they really tie this whole thing together. The edges of a city are what make core sustainably possible. It’s what makes all successful downtowns work. People have to want to go in there and leave the inhabitants of their comfortable traffic ride home so it must be inviting; it requires intrigue and captivation.
I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but people do. So image matters, because I want people to know the real Downtown Jacksonville, the real me, the real us, our core. I’m willing to swap the board shorts for some slacks, to open a conversation and in my humble opinion so should the rest of the city.
Make sure you make it out to the cleanup on Saturday! Your city needs you, bit by bit and brick by brick!
Cleanup: 311 W. Ashley St. @ 9 AM on Saturday, May 27.
Matthew Killen is a Jacksonville transplant by way of US Navy and NE Texas. He was a Delegate for Bernie Sanders and is a Precinct Committeeman for the 713. He has a BA from Jacksonville University in Public Relations but insists that he uses his powers for good.