"I really do think it's a serious problem with the Peyton administration that they make too many bad decisions and then down the line, they realize they made a bad decision and come to their senses." Former Mayor Jake Godbold.
In mid 2003, local developer Toney Sleiman purchased the struggling Jacksonville Landing with plans for a massive expansion and renovation project in preparation for the 2005 Super Bowl. With expected cooperation from the city, plans included: opening the courtyard to Laura Street, renovating the existing structure, and expanding the facility.
Unfortunately, the Landing is owned by two entities that have not been able to cooperate. While Sleiman owned the actual buildings, the City of Jacksonville owned the land beneath them. The Big Idea was concieved as the city's alternative to Sleiman's request to purchase the land underneath the buildings before investing millions to upgrade them.
Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton's staff revealed a "brainstorming" concept Friday for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown with enhanced public access to both riverwalks -- and the city holding on to the property under The Jacksonville Landing.
The vision is still preliminary and hasn't been vetted by engineering, legal or financial experts. If Peyton adopts even some of the ideas, they could take more than a decade to come to fruition.
But Peyton knows one thing for certain: He's not giving away city-owned land on downtown's top asset -- the St. Johns River.
What was the Big Idea?
The 'Big Idea' was Peyton's own plan to revitalize the downtown waterfront instead of working with Landing owner, Toney Sleiman, to revitalize the festival marketplace.
Components of the plan included:
Revitalized Jacksonville Landing
A majority of the Landing would be demolished and replaced with a park containing limited retail along Independent Drive.
A maritime themed public park would be constructed just east of the Main Street Bridge.
Main Street Bridge Pedestrian Walk
Main Street would become a two-way road downtown. Ramps to the bridge would be eliminated and a traffic lane removed to create a larger sidewalk with vendor space.
Kids Zone would be located where Friendship Fountain currently stands. Featuring an interactive kids fountain, this space would serve as a replacement for Kids Kampus, which would then be demolished and converted into "flex space". This term was used to describe a permanent grass field where temporary events and festivals could be held.
"Harbor Town" would be a concept bringing family-friendly retail stores, restaurants and open spaces along the southbank of the St. Johns River.
Although some parts of the "Big Idea" had merit, the plan as a whole was severely shortsighted and it completely ignored successful urban planning concepts. The plan was plagued with so many problems that one may wonder how the concept ever made it off the 4th floor without undergoing massive revisions to create a better final product. These issues included:
Instead of working with the Landing's plans to expand the complex, Peyton's plan demolished most of a structure which the city does not own without even consulting the owner.
It is clear that the Peyton Administration values passive public spaces. Unfortunately, this park's location is currently occupied by the Hyatt Hotel. Adding to the confusion, the Hyatt's owners found out about the plan by reading it in the newspaper along with everyone else.
Main Street Bridge Pedestrian Walk
There is nothing wrong with the idea of wide sidewalks filled with vendors along the riverfront. However, placing vendor space on a working drawbridge and eliminating lanes on a bridge that sometimes backs traffic up to I-95 were problems that should have been realized from the start.
Not many people will complain about the need for active parks or revitilizing this Southbank park. However, destroying Friendship Fountain proved the plan gave very little consideration to the value of preserving the few historic downtown icons we have left.
Downtown would benefit from a vibrant mixed-use waterfront retail center. However, we already have the Landing, which is owned by a developer who has expressed a desire to invest in and expand the center. It is much easier to work with what you already have, as opposed to creating a new competitor directly across the river.
Another major roadblock to this plan required the city to buy out a 99-year lease from River City Brewing Co. while ignoring the maritime museum right next door. The museum had expressed an interest in expanding using privately raised money on numerous occasions.
Good urban planning requires the realization that a downtown environment is not a blank slate for a select few to do whatever they wish to it. Unlike developing cow pastures in the suburbs, urban planning requires working with what is already in place.
Peyton's Big Idea did not embrace what we already have and as a result it was swiftly met with heavy opposition from the community. It also served as the catalyst that created MetroJacksonville.com.
In the end, the Big Idea quickly went down in flames. Today, some negative components of the plan, such as demolishing Friendship Fountain, relocating Kids Kampus, and refusing to work with Tony Sleiman on the Landing renovation still remain, but the 'Big Idea' as a whole has simply vanished.