A Message to City Hall: Practice What You Preach

April 16, 2007 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It's the typical story out of the City of Jacksonville: continuing to trade Babe Ruths for a bucket of balls and a pair of dirty socks. This particular story involves the city making a move to strengthen the core, but ignoring or forgetting to incorporate the small details that create really vibrant street scenes. You know, the ones we can't seem to stimulate no matter how much public money is invested in the Northbank. The latest fumble in this never ending game of musical chairs centers around the new city hall annex building and Hemming Plaza.

"The design will not change the facade other than replacing the building’s original double-hung wooden windows as well as removing the existing storefront windows on the ground floor and replacing them with an office-type design." - Jax Daily Record article published 3/30/07

Sorry, that's not good enough. What type of message does it send when the governmental entity that supposedly wants to encourage mixed-use projects within the downtown core, refuses to follow its own regulations and suggestions?  Ever heard of leading by example? 

Downtown Overlay Zone & Downtown District Regulations:


To get an idea of what of level of vibrant activity we can expect once the new city hall annex is renovated, take a look across the street. During its early years, the St. James Building housed a department store surrounded by street level retail spaces which opened up onto Hemming Park.



Today, while the St. James Building has been renovated, it creates a large dead space of inactivity during weekday nights and weekends. This is a result of the city's uses turning their back to downtown's historic public square, instead of embracing and integrating with it and the variety of special events that could take place there. 



The aerial above explains why Hemming doesn't live up to its potential as a true vibrant public square.  Everything labeled in red creates of feeling of abandonment in the area during nights and weekends. This is because, for the most part, they're only open between 8 and 5, Monday through Friday. Everything labeled in yellow provides positive activity after work hours to the area. The new city hall annex building is located in a perfect position to strengthen the vibe of Hemming on nights and weekends. Unfortunately, while words say one thing, the continued actions of City Hall shows that leaders either don't believe in downtown's true potential or just don't really care. 


What's The Big Deal?

A simple man (or woman) might say, what's the big deal?  Isn't a vacant building being brought back to life and is being saved from demolition? 

Sure, but why continue to settle for mediocrity? Why not take advantage of the wide sidewalk in front of structure, the nearby park, and weekend destinations, such as the public library and MOCA Jax?  If we're going to continue to invest millions of public dollars into the core, we could at least have the forethought to ensure that our investments add to the atmosphere everyone hopes for. Taking advantage of the Haverty Building's parkside corner would do just that by complementing the few cultural uses that keep the struggling park from completely becoming a scene from "28 Days Later".


Some public officials claim the city is bursting at the seams and they just can't spare one square inch of the +60,000 square foot building for potential retail or cultural oriented space. However, where there's a will, there's a way.  You may not be able to fit an IKEA in there, but there are several real possibilities, once you incorporate the wide sidewalk (shown above), into planning the building's interior layout.  This would be an example of "urban planning" as opposed to what has been typically done on the First Coast.

Replacing the boarded up windows with glass office windows (as currently planned by COJ) will not change the scene shown above.


However, finding a creative and simple way to carve out just 500 to 1,000sf of space, plus incorporating the sidewalk into those plans, and this vibrant sidewalk scene could easily become a reality.


Examples of Compact Commercial Uses

Cereality is an example of an urban oriented retail enterprise that doesn't require much space.  Inline cafes range from 1,000 to 2,000sf and kiosks can be as small as 200sf.  What's most important for businesses such as this is street visibility, signage, and morning and lunch traffic generated from nearby office buildings, churches and libraries.  In other words, this concept would be perfect for the street level corner space of the YMCA Building.

How about an ice cream vendor?  Would such a use not add to the vibrancy of Hemming Plaza or the area's attractiveness to groups visiting MOCA Jax or the Main Library?  Most would take this over having one additional storage closet in a 60,000sf building.

Need More?

How about a juice bar?  They don't take up much space and you don't need gas lines and grease traps.  Check out the new one operating in Gold's Gym for an actual real life example.

Isn't the goal to convert the Hemming area into a "government center"?  If so, we can assume a lot of business oriented people will be visiting the area.  How about a news stand on that large sidewalk?  Very simple, cheap and doesn't take up much space.  Yet, it adds to the diversity of the immediate area.

Last but not least, a fruit stand. The Farmer's Market is nice, but its not accessible to the general public that can't make it downtown during work hours.  While a full blown farmer's market may be a little too much on the weekend, the Haverty's corner could be a popular place for local vendors trying to capitalize on office worker foot traffic during the week and the library and museum's foot traffic during the weekends. 


So How Do We Make It Happen?

First, make it just as much of a priority to bring additional life and critical mass to Hemming Plaza, as it is to fill the building with as much office space as possible.  Second, accept the notion that retail comes in all shapes, sizes and forms.  Things that would complement Hemming and nearby cultural uses can take up very little space. Third, incorporate the sidewalk into plans.  Doing such effectively doubles the amount of square footage for potential businesses, while lessoning the area needed indoors for non-governmental use.

The illustration above, highlights 540sf of space, at the corner of Laura and Duval Streets.  That's a drop in the bucket, compared to the +60,000sf of space available in the building.  While only a minute amount of space (and it doesn't have to be that much), it can add a huge element of foot traffic and life into a zombie like setting at nights and on weekends.

All in all, if we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to figure out how to get a little more creative with our public downtown projects. Let's change history and keep moving forward instead of trying to create a nuclear holocaust downtown.