The Southbank Riverwalk that runs along the southern bank of St. Johns River in the southernmost section of downtown Jacksonville offers some of the city’s best views, both for tourists and residents.
It was envisioned by Jake Godbold, who served as the city’s mayor for much of the 1980s. A master plan for the project was developed by Perkins & Perkins Architects, and it was constructed in the mid-‘80s.
But, as has too often been the case in Jacksonville’s history, what ended up being built differed significantly from the original vision.
WHAT WAS PROPOSED
The original rendering for the 1.2-mile stretch of riverfront property featured a mix of open-air space, retail, restaurants, and event space.
The space between the Acosta and Main Street bridges featured a massive open-air recreation space in between the Museum of Science & History and the existing restaurant Diamond Head Lobster House. The roundabout near the Prudential building would have been adorned with a decorative sculpture.
An amphitheater seating 3,000 would have faced the river next to the recreation space. And next to that, an aquarium and ship museum were proposed along the west side of Main Street Bridge.
A massive shooting water fountain resembling Friendship Fountain was proposed, and the existing fountain would’ve been removed.
A walkway underneath the Main Street Bridge would connect you to the other side and would have also featured a small sidewalk café.
On the east side of the walkway, there would be more open-air space for both events and relaxation. Four pavilions would have provided concession space as well as public restrooms.
And most interestingly, the east side was also set to feature an open-air marketplace – like Riverside Arts Market, but twenty years before RAM launched.
WHAT WAS BUILT
When the full stretch of the Southbank Riverwalk was built out, several of those proposed features were absent.
A parking lot for the marina ate up much of the proposed west-side recreation space.
Friendship Fountain was refurbished instead of being removed, and a later project would add what became River City Brewing Company on land that was previously a part of Friendship Park. MOSH also ended up expanding its campus around the same time.
The open-air pavilions never generated the activity that was expected, and the “open-air marketplace” turned into just a few kiosks that were rarely occupied.
The aquarium was never built, nor was the maritime museum – although Jacksonville Maritime Museum did briefly operate in a kiosk on the Riverwalk in the ‘90s in between stints at the Landing.
A Navy memorial was installed on what was originally planned as green space on the eastern side.
The under-bridge café, amphitheater, and defining sculpture for San Marco Blvd. also never came to fruition.
We ended up with a relatively plain boardwalk, absent of the defining features initially proposed – though admittedly offering some great riverfront views.
In the past decade, Riverwalk replacement projects have dramatically improved the aesthetic value of the walkway, replacing aging wooden planks with concrete and brick paths and adding modern lighting and fixtures.
But there’s still a very limited amount of things to do along the Southbank Riverwalk – and new developments along the river have done little to incorporate the Riverwalk or to offer destinations for pedestrians.
Future developments may help change this, of course. Once The District is developed, the city plans to extend the Riverwalk in a loop around the project to connect it to the Fuller Warren Bridge Shared Use Path that’s currently being built.
But for now, Southbank’s Riverwalk stands as a cautionary tale for ensuring that projects deliver on what they propose.