Downtown Frankenstein: The Riverwalks

October 25, 2006 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Sometimes its best to go back and implement ideas and concepts from abandoned studies for existing projects that never reached their potential, due to not being constructed as originally designed. Our riverwalks would be a great place to start.


Over the years, in an effort to find a way to enhance and revitalize downtown, new master plans, task forces and studies under various administrations have been created replacing many that were never implemented for an array of reasons.  With so much public money invested in these abandoned studies, it may be time to dust off a few and discover many brilliant ideas and plans that never made it to reality.  With consultants being hired to come up with a plan to redesign Friendship Fountain and the surrounding park area, taking a look at original riverwalk master plans would be a great start.  Today, Metro Jacksonville exposes a few of these studies, with the hope that one day some can make it to the light at the end of the tunnel, simply because they made sense then and they still do today.


The Jake Godbold administration labeled the 1980’s as “The Billion Dollar Decade” for downtown redevelopment.  One of the major projects planned and constructed during this era was the Southbank Riverwalk, which opened in 1985.  The 1.2 mile walk was designed by Perkins & Perkins Architects / Planners and Design Consortium Landscape Architects to be a festive waterfront public space linking Friendship Fountain and the Harbor Masters restaurant (now River City Brewing Co.) with hotels and office buildings east of the Main Street Bridge.  While the riverwalk was constructed it never lived up to expectations, partially because what you see today is less than half of what it was supposed to be.  According to the master plan, the riverwalk was to include the following: 

EAST OF MAIN STREET BRIDGE (School Board building to Crowne Plaza Hotel)

St. Johns Wharf


An open-air marketplace built over the river adjacent to the Wyndham Hotel.  Although a few shops were built along the riverwalk, the wharf was never constructed. 


Graphic System


This would consist of banners, kiosks and signage to provide visitors with clear and legible information, as well as reinforce the warm and lively image of the riverwalk. 


Open Air Pavilions


Original plans called for four, which would possibly house concessions and restroom facilities.  However, only two were constructed. 


The Grove


This would be a raised grass seating area shaded by a grove of palm trees.  This was never constructed. 


The Pyramid


This section would include a terraced seating area for special events.  This is now the location of the Navy Memorial. 









Just to the south of the maritime museum, original plans called for an aquarium facing Friendship Fountain, which would showcase local fresh and saltwater marine life.  Never built. 


Friendship Park River Fountain


A geyser shooting water 500ft into the sky, located in the river.  Would become one of the most notable landmarks in the city.  Never built. 


Great Lawn


Open space for recreation and relaxation.  Never built. 


Under the Bridge Café


A Sidewalk Café that would link both sides of riverwalk.  Never built. 


Ship Museum


An attraction created to emphasize the historic relationship between the city and the river.  Would include floating ship exhibits.  Idea was scaled down into the current maritime museum, which is housed in a small kiosk. 




A 3,000-seat open-air facility with bandstand and theatrical lighting, built out into the river that would be used for public concerts, ballets, festivals and school graduations. 


San Marco Blvd Sculpture


This would have been located in the middle of the circle next to MOSH. 


As you can see in the illustration above, the Southbank would have become a great attraction if we had only stayed the course and continued to work to fully implement the master plan.  What’s amazing is despite this concept being over 20 years old, if the will is there, its still possible to dust it off and finish out, at least the Friendship Fountain area, since its renovation is front and center now.  The plan shown in the graphic contains a mix of things for people of all ages and cultures, which is the key ingredient to creating great public spaces.




Like its southern counterpart, this project was also supposed to be much more than what you see today.  The early 1980’s saw a dramatic shift in the development of downtown.  Between the release of the 1971 Master Plan study and the beginning of Jake Godbold’s administration, the development of downtown began to grow along the river, instead of two the north, as it had done decades earlier. 


As a result of this and a visit to San Antonio’s Riverwalk, Godbold announced a 3-phase $250 million dollar plan for the Northbank riverfront.  New projects, such as the Southern Bell Tower, a hotel (eventually the Omni), convention center and festival marketplace would replace the 1970’s proposals. In 1980, officials announced plans for the $2.5 million dollar St. Johns River Esplanade.  The Esplanade would be a linear waterfront park extending from the CSX building to the Main Street Bridge.  It would be a place where the public could partake in activities like jogging, fishing, cycling, lawn games and picnicking in the Northbank core. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as originally conceived. While this plan was being hatched, the Jacksonville Historic Commission and local preservationist fought to have abandoned Union Terminal renovated into a convention center.  On the other hand, downtown advocates, including the local AIA chapter and Preston Haskell fought to have it built at the original proposed site, which is where the Omni and Wachovia Tower stand today.  They felt the railroad station was to far away and that a convention center in the core would help create synergy and stimulate heavy pedestrian activity with the Hemming Plaza retail area, the civic auditorium and the planned festival marketplace. 

In the end, preservationist won out, eventually causing half of the DDA members to resign, along with the closing of the Holiday Inn City Center and many Northbank retail establishments.  Although the Esplanade, never made it off the drawing boards, several studies involving the Northbank Riverwalk would be created throughout the years, three of which we’ll briefly discuss below.   




Although a large segment of the riverwalk opened right before the 2005 Super Bowl, most of it was planned as far back as 1989.  This plan called for a riverwalk to be constructed from the Fuller Warren Bridge to the Shipyards.  In the Brooklyn area a series of activity nodes or “landings” were supposed to be constructed where streets dead-end into the walk.  Each Landing was supposed to include information kiosks, food concession facilities, mooring slips, enclosed pavilions, restrooms and water taxi stops.



This is an image of the Jackson Street Landing site plan


MECA STUDY – 1990 

This time the consultants hired by the DDA were BHR and ERA.  The Major Entertainment Complex Attraction Study (MECA) looked at taking the existing civic auditorium property and converting it into a major cultural hub with several museums adjacent to the recently opened Landing.  Cultural components included a $15 million, 40,000sf mini-aquarium, maritime museum, 80,000sf Sports Immortal and 100,000sf arts museum.  The Daniel Building, now owned by Hyatt, was also looked as possible location.  11 concepts were offered as a result of this document.  Nevertheless, the suggested options ended up on the back of the shelf faster than a young Mike Tyson’s left hook to the lamb chops.

Figure A-6 shows a proposal that involved reconfiguring the Times Union Center into a cultural complex that included four additional attractions fronting the riverwalk and surrounding a central sculpture plaza.


Figure A-7 shows an alternative layout for the same site.  While plans were impressive, they also included developing public buildings on privately owned property, such as CSX’s parking lots next door.




Downtown development would come to an abrupt halt during the Hazouri administration.  However, the amount of studies continued to increase.  A year after the MECA study, another was done with the intention of bringing alive the space between the Times Union Performing Arts Center and the river.  In a city that still struggles to understand the importance of urban parks and there relationship with their surrounding area, this two acre $4.6 million dollar park plan was pretty decent.  Sverdrup Corp., the consultant, designed 3 concepts for a linear park that would include a mix of green space, seating areas, fountains and outdoor plazas.  Unfortunately, like those before it, it never came to fruition.

This fountain would have been located at the center of the Northbank Riverwalk Park, in front of the Times Union Performing Arts Center.


This illustration shows the plan for one of the three concepts presented by Sverdrup Corp.



As stated earlier, we’ve amassed enough studies and master plans to the point, where its time to step back from creating more and seriously consider implementing parts of many public projects that were never built as originally planned.  Below, we’ll share and example of one such case.

A 2006 aerial of the Times Union Center shows a performing arts facility that lacks interconnectivity with its surroundings.

Many times before, its been mentioned that the city owns several blocks of under-utilized land in the downtown core.  Sometimes, we tend to overlook several parcels because they may be already developed.  One of those sites is the Times Union Performing Arts Center.  With the amount of special events occurring at the center, the Landing and the riverwalk on a regular basis, at some point, it would be a good idea to enhance this public owned parcel by building out the Northbank Riverfront Park plan and incorporating destination dining/retail/cultural uses immediately adjacent to the Times Union Center.  Given the attractiveness of the site, this is a situation where the city could possibly issue Request for Proposals (RFPs) for potential high profile spots around the center, strengthening its connection to its surroundings and creating a more dynamic atmosphere in the process.

The illustration above combines the 2006 aerial, with the 1991 park plan, as well as three potential spots for additional development.  Site A, the largest is located at a prominent entry point to the Northbank riverfront district.  It would be an ideal spot for an additional cultural attraction, museum or large scale sit down restaurant with outdoor seating, being adjacent to the performing arts center’s main entrance.  Sites B & C would help connect the center with the riverfront park and Jacksonville Landing.  In an ideal situation, Hogan, south of Water Street could become an extension of the riverfront park, helping to tie the entire area in with Cameron Kuhn’s planned River Watch project and Wachovia Tower across the street.  Given the small size, Site B would probably be best suited for a small sidewalk café or retail enterprise.  Site C on the other hand would be a great location for an establishment seeking riverfront views.

The photo above is a representation of the type of scene and establishment that could be accommodated by using under-utilized performing arts center property, in an urban and pedestrian friendly oriented format.