Creating Downtown Vibrancy by Exposing Secret Retail

November 5, 2010 70 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

News flash Jacksonville: There won't be a Whole Foods, Publix, Nordstrom, or 10,000 residents beating down the doors of downtown anytime soon. However, this does not mean that all is lost. Better exposing and utilizing what's already there is an affordable solution that will stimulate additional foot traffic and create the unique sense of place city leaders desire.

Question: What do these images illustrate that does not exist in downtown Jacksonville?

Toronto, ON Canada

Detroit, Michigan

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Nashville, Tennessee

Chicago, Illinois

Manhattan, New York City

Answer: All of the images above were taken in vibrant walkable districts across the country where businesses are well integrated with the sidewalks and the streets adjacent to them.

In a vibrant walkable downtown, buildings bases must be human-scaled and allow for interaction between indoors and out. Preferably, there should be active ground floor uses that create valuable experiences along a street for both pedestrians and motorists. For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Sidewalk activity also serves to slow vehicular traffic. At the very minimum, the edge connection should be visual, allowing passers-by to enjoy the activity and aesthetics of the indoor space. These edge uses should be active year-round and unite both sides of the street.

Despite the grim view many have of Downtown Jacksonville, one will be surprised to learn that there are a number of businesses in the heart of our central business district that can not be seen from the sidewalk. This is financially limiting for these businesses as well as contributing to the empty feeling of downtown Jacksonville's streetscape. The following examples all fall within Downtown Vision's (DVI) "Walkable Core."


Located on the first two floors of the AT&T Tower, The Tower Mall is home to several retailers, eateries and services. Unfortunately, they can't be seen from the street due to window treatment, blank exterior walls, and lack of signage.

This entire block of Forsyth Street retail is hidden behind tinted windows, landscaping and closed window blinds.

The entrance to Tower Mall near the intersection of Forsyth & Pearl Streets.

This convenience store is along the sidewalk but can't be seen from it.

Confetti's serves donuts, muffins, coffee, sandwiches, salads, and wraps at the corner of Forsyth & Julia Streets. Unless you knew the general public could enter the building, you would never know Confetti's actually exists.

More businesses including a florist and large cafeteria, along with vacant retail spaces line the tower's ground level arcade.  One can only wonder what will happen to these businesses once CSX relocates from the AT&T Tower.  Better connectivity with the public streets around this complex would at least let the general public know they actually exist.

A Simple Solution

Transparent windows at ground level, signage, better lighting, outdoor seating at mall entrances, removing window blinds and installing a mall entrance sign or directory along the sidewalk are all viable affordable options that would improve this block bounded by Forsyth, Julia, Bay and Pearl Streets.


Downtown Jacksonville's second tallest tower anchors the current Laura Street Streetscape project and is adjacent to the Landing. If the desire is to get pedestrians walking on sidewalks, integrating this building with its surroundings is critical because it is home to a number of ground level businesses.

Unfortunately, two full blocks (Bay St & Laura St) that could be continuously lined with outdoor seating, businesses and pedestrian interactivity remain desolate and empty since all retail openings are on the interior.

One Independent Square was the home of a Morrison's Cafeteria when it opened in 1975, proving that it was built to accommodate street oriented ground level retail.

Inside, one can find convenience, jewelry, gourmet ice cream stores, banks, hair salons and restaurants.

Atrium Cafe is the only business with an outdoor presence. Unfortunately, it faces ramps leading up the Main Street Bridge.

Since the majority of pedestrians who know that retail is inside of this building actually work in it, the number of vacancies has increased as corporations relocate from these towers to the Southside.

Ground level frontage along Laura Street.

Ground level frontage along Bay Street.

Left: a vacant storefront with Bay Street frontage in the rear. Right: A hair salon.

A Simple Solution

This tower was originally built to be fully integrated with the outdoor environment around it.  Adding exterior doors and signage individual glass storefronts and adding outdoor seating on the wide sidewalks adjacent to them would be great places to start.  


Ever notice how outside of the Landing, there appears to be little retail along Water Street?  That's an optical illusion that this complex pulls off pretty well as there is at least three restaurants, a bar, gift shop, car rental business, and coffee shop behind those reflective glass panels.

The only thing you can see from the sidewalk is a reflection of yourself.

A walk inside this building feels like you've been teleported to another city as you realize there are places to eat, shop, bank, rent a car and have happy hour behind those reflective glass panels.

Dining with a view: Enterprise Center Cafe offers a hot bar and views of the skyline, ten stories above the city. During this stop, a Metro Jacksonville forumer enjoying a meal there mentioned she never knew the restaurant existed until she walked past a temporary portable sign that happened to be placed outside of the tower's main entrance.

The Enterprise Center's main entrance and Enterprise Center Cafe's portable sign.

A Simple Solution

Exterior signage, lighting and seating would do wonders by helping to add some life to what should be one of downtown's most vibrant street corners.


How many people know that you can get your clothes dry cleaned, stop for coffee and pastries, or dine 42 stories above the city along Laura Street, between Bay & Forsyth?  One could also grab lunch on the corner of Laura & Forsyth until the recent closing of the business there.  It could be argued that this business partially closed due to few pedestrians knowing you could purchase a meal behind granite walls and covered windows at a prime corner spot in the core.

Looking for a downtown dry cleaner service?  This can be handled inside the retail level of the Bank of America tower.

This space at the corner of Laura and Forsyth is the site of a recently closed restaurant.  Since it didn't have exterior signage when it was open, a pedestrian would not know unless they entered the building's main entrance to realize that Bank of America isn't the structure's only tenant.

Java Junction is a gourmet coffee stand that sells specialty drinks such as cappuccino, espresso right inside of the tower's Laura Street entrance.

A view of Java Junction from Laura Street.

A Simple Solution

Clean windows, exterior signage, and outdoor seating.  This should be a must with the city spending $2.7 million rebuilding the street directly in front of it.


If you're looking for a good meal, there is a large cafeteria inside the First Baptist Church complex along Laura Street. In fact, it is so large, it's the length of an entire block.  Unfortunately, instead of inviting awnings, menu signage, outdoor seating or transparent glass, it looks more like the back of a warehouse instead of something that could contribute greatly in establishing a vibrant pedestrian friendly scene along a major downtown thoroughfare.

Behind glass block windows, FBC's restaurant's interior can be seen from the upper levels of an adjacent building as night falls.

Along the empty street one would never know they could grab a bite to eat in this section of downtown.

One of downtown Jacksonville's largest dining facilities exists behind those glass block walls facing Laura Street.

A Simple Solution

Would an exterior entry to Laura Street with a couple of tables for outdoor dining be too much to ask?  Exterior signage, awnings and transparent windows would complement the impressive Children's Building & Welcome Center across the street and give pedestrians a reason to walk north of Hemming Plaza.


Zodiac Grill's recent facade improvement on Adams Street should serve as the perfect example of enhancing the integration of an existing business with the sidewalk. Like our secret retail examples above, the visibility of Zodiac's space in this ten story building was also limited.

This was eliminated with the simple addition of a glass storefront entry (replaced a tinted glass window), an awning, some greenery and two tables on the sidewalk. This affordable small scale improvement immediately enhanced both the viability of the business and the atmosphere of the building's entrance with the public realm.

Now imagine if this technique was applied along a full block?

Moving Forward

An example of a large generic building with ground level uses penetrating into the street in Arlington, VA.

Ground floor uses and retail activities spilling out into adjacent sidewalks and streets, thus blurring the distinction between public and private space is a characteristic of a vibrant downtown. The examples above are just a few of many that can be found in the "walkable" core of downtown where we fail at achieving this critical place-making element.  

Retail spills out into the street at Findlay Market in Cincinnati.

Sure it would be great to attract 10,000 residents, a major retailer, or establish a grand dedicated funding source for all future downtown improvements. However, that's just not going to happen in today's economic climate.  

By placing too much focus on the unachievable, we're overlooking short term solutions that can provide just as much success in creating a lively downtown environment.

Sandwich Box in downtown Toronto.

If we're looking for an immediate enhancement in the vitality of the "walkable core", finding a better way to expose, promote, and integrate the businesses we already have with the sidewalks built to serve them is a great place to start.

Article by Ennis Davis