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Exploring the Westbrook Commercial District

A few weeks ago, our Forgotten Jacksonville series exposed the beauty of Westside's Westbrook Park. Today, we explore a few blocks Southwest of the park: The Westbrook Commercial District.

Published March 26, 2014 in Neighborhoods      12 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


feature


A view of the entrance of the Lovett's Food Store at 614 North McDuff Avenue in 1947. Lovett Food stores were owned and operated by the Winn & Lovett Grocery Company. In 1925, Idaho-native William Davis purchased Rockmoor Grocery in Miami. He later purchased the Lively Stores (1931) and the Winn & Lovett stores (1939), a name his sons used as their company name. In 1944, the Winn & Lovett Company headquartered in Jacksonville. In 1955, they merged with Dixie Home Store to form Winn-Dixie Supermarkets. Image courtesy of Robert Fisher Collection and the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/167336

Jacksonville is a city with a diverse collection of neighborhoods and business districts.  The diversity is really evident within the limits of the 30 square mile boundaries of the pre-consolidated city and especially the Westside.

The railroad and the Great Fire of 1901 played a significant role in the rapid development of the Westside during the early 20th century. With the massive Seaboard Air Line Shops and Terminals as an employment anchor and a streetcar line connecting it to downtown, Lackawanna boomed to life during the first decade of the 1900s. Responding to this growth on what was literally the edge of town, Westbrook was platted in 1911, on the other side of the tracks from the railyard. A compact community by design, the 20-block development included a linear park following the path of Three-Mile Branch, forming its north and east edges. Paralleling the railroad to the south, industrial uses formed the neighborhood's south border, while McDuff Avenue served as the west border.

Long before the Westbrook plat, the Old Spanish Trail, then known as Enterprise Street, and now Beaver Street, served as the major conduit between Jacksonville and Florida's Panhandle. Naturally, as Westbrook developed from a rural community into an urban neighborhood, the properties straddling the thoroughfare became heavily commercial district. Just a quarter mile walk north of the Jacksonville Traction Company's streetcar line terminus in Lackawanna, there was also easy and reliable connectivity to downtown.

With growth and development in the area benefiting from the Florida Land Boom, some of the earliest commercial buildings in Westbrook began to rise during the 1920s. By World war II, a full blown retail district, complete with its own movie theatre, comparable in scale to Riverside's Five Points and Murray Hill's First Block, developed along Beaver Street between McDuff Avenue and Sprague Street.

Yet, unlike those districts which catered primarily to large residential populations, Westbrook's district also served as a centralized commercial zone for nearby industries employing thousands of Jaxsons. As time progressed, this commercial district was negatively impacted by the construction of I-10, siphoning through traffic on Beaver Street, and the closure and relocation of nearby industries.

Time and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have not been good to this district. To facilitate traffic movement, Beaver Street is an undivided four-lane road with narrow sidewalks sandwiched by several commercial buildings that were constructed during an era when just as many people walked as those who drove. As a result, most businesses today have entries that are either on the side or in the rear of their properties.  The blank wall of aging former storefronts facing Beaver then combine to give a visual impression of blight and abandonment.  Furthermore, to accommodate the automobile, several buildings in the district have been razed over the years to serve as parking for the neighboring uses that remain.

Yet, despite all the obstacles this commercial district has faced over the years, it still blossoms with an abundance of local and family owned businesses. Next year, FDOT will have a chance to right many unintentional wrongs, with the reconstruction of Beaver Street through this commercial district. Current plans will add 6-foot sidewalks and an extra foot in width to each of the existing four travel lanes. The reconstruction project is expected to cost $13.25 million.  Roughly, $650,000 will be used to acquire needed right-of-way along the constrained roadway. Construction is scheduled to begin in October 2015. With this in mind, we invite our readers to take a visual tour of this commercial district and the history behind it.


The McDuff Street Railroad crossing in 1948. The rear of Lovett's Food Store can be seen on the right. Image courtesy of Spottswood Collection and the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/52963



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12 Comments

Noone

March 26, 2014, 06:33:31 AM
Appreciate the history of Jacksonville.

mtraininjax

March 26, 2014, 06:34:14 AM
Great info! The same plague on Murray Hill is plaguing here as well. The shutdown of the Seaboard shops. There is little new job growth in these areas in the original design, manufacturing, repair. There is the Silk plan down the road on Beaver and a few other businesses, but the manufacturing that raised these areas is gone.

Some of the area would be better suited to have the concrete removed and turned into farming land for the communities to share and bring residents together. So many boarded up buildings and houses. Its a shame, and no one has a plan for it!

02roadking

March 26, 2014, 08:42:06 AM
The Shrimps at R&R look fantastic.

Keith-N-Jax

March 26, 2014, 09:07:59 AM
Love Mary Ann's chicken and seafood

spuwho

March 26, 2014, 09:49:38 AM
I always wondered why that business district was there. Good story and research.

However, help me understand how FDOT is the cause of the decline.

Quote
Time and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have not been good to this district.

When did FDOT eventually widen Beaver? ( I am guessing between 1948 and 1955) I understand the impingement on walkability and streetside parking, but it seems that neighborhood was built on the back of the nearby railroad in the 1920's and probably declined on the back of the same as employment left the area.

JEA (Jacksonville Expressway Authority) built the first E-W expressway to Cassat between 1957 and 1960 which bypassed the Beaver/McDuff district. This moved alot of the traffic flow away from Beaver and moved it to Normandy in 1960. I don't have any supporting information, but I suspect Beaver was very congested post WWII.

The warehouses that used to surround this area all moved to the new warehouse district west of Edgewood in the 1970's which diminished the need for the McDuff Yard even further and sent employment (and the business) further west.

Thanks for the history on the movie theater. I love that stuff.




IrvAdams

March 26, 2014, 09:57:55 AM
Excellent presentation, thanks. I remember going to Mary Ann's on many occasions years ago.

I got to see the inside of the Beaver Street Fisheries building complex a couple years ago on a consulting assignment. It looks old and historical also, across the street from the Farmer's market at that busy intersection. It's now a very successful seafood company (Sea Best). I'll bet that building also has an interesting past.

thelakelander

March 26, 2014, 10:07:48 AM
^It does. Here's an article about the history of BSF with a photo tour of the inside of that complex:

http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2013-jul-made-in-jacksonville-beaver-street-fisheries-inc

thelakelander

March 26, 2014, 10:22:25 AM
I always wondered why that business district was there. Good story and research.

However, help me understand how FDOT is the cause of the decline.

Quote
Time and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) have not been good to this district.

When did FDOT eventually widen Beaver? ( I am guessing between 1948 and 1955) I understand the impingement on walkability and streetside parking, but it seems that neighborhood was built on the back of the nearby railroad in the 1920's and probably declined on the back of the same as employment left the area.

Neighborhoods and commercial districts decline for lots of reasons.  The decline in nearby railroad, manufacturing jobs and residential population have negatively impacted the district.  Despite these things, most of the district's buildings are still occupied with tenants, which is pretty impressive compared to several other older commercial districts in the urban core, outside of Riverside/Avondale and San Marco. However, one wouldn't really know this due to the reaction on the built environment by having a narrow, undivided four-lane facility with swift moving traffic cutting through it's heart.

This district and Five Points are/were essentially the same thing/same scale. Park and Beaver are nearly identical in width. However, the streetscapes of the districts create two different atmospheres.

Five Points:


Westbrook:


So how we design our streets for the context (think context sensitive streets) they penetrate also plays an important role that should not be overlooked.

Cause:

Narrow, 4-lane undivided highway

Result:

1. Narrow sidewalks

2. Fast moving traffic

3. Narrow sidewalks + fast moving traffic = storefronts with no awnings because narrow sidewalk conditions create a situation where awnings can be damaged by auto/truck traffic.

4. Narrow sidewalks + fast moving traffic + no protection for Florida weather = less pedestrian foot traffic and more short auto trips.

5. 4-lanes + narrow sidewalks = no on-street parking in streetscape designed for auto/truck travel over pedestrians.

6. No on-street parking + no pedestrian foot traffic = need for off-street parking. To accommodate such a need, 1/2 of the commercial properties in district have been demolished and their slabs are used for parking or remaining buildings. Remaining building entrances have shifted from street to side and rear of properties to align with their new off-street parking lots.  This makes the streetscape appear to be worse than it really is.


Quote
The warehouses that used to surround this area all moved to the new warehouse district west of Edgewood in the 1970's which diminished the need for the McDuff Yard even further and sent employment (and the business) further west.

I believe Ock shared the history of the West Jax yard before.  I think he said most of the activity at West Jax was relocated to Waycross.


mtraininjax

March 27, 2014, 08:06:19 AM
Beaver Street is a racetrack at times, I think it was widened to handle increased truck traffic and the fact that it is also US 90. Hard to leave a US highway only 2 lanes, especially in Florida.

thelakelander

March 27, 2014, 08:16:21 AM
Anothee example is College and Post (once US17). Now that they aren't, they feel completely different.

Scrub Palmetto

March 29, 2014, 02:29:21 PM
Thanks for the tour! Seeing inside some of the businesses is a great touch and provides a heightened sense of a district's life. Featuring some of the characters, the people (business owners, residents) even if in passing as part of photos might add a lot to that as well, but I know a lot of extra work. That may sound strange coming from me, a veteran of the ol' Skyscraperpage buildings-n-streetscapes tradition, but I've come to really value the humans of a place in its portrayal and how it threatens the standing perceptions of a place as a dead or dying, faceless no man's land (a favorite example).

spuwho

March 29, 2014, 03:00:00 PM

This district and Five Points are/were essentially the same thing/same scale. Park and Beaver are nearly identical in width. However, the streetscapes of the districts create two different atmospheres.


Hmm. Five Points has a robust residential district. Westbrook less so.

Five Points looks like something the evolved over a longer period of time, where Westbrook looks like the tail end of a boom town that came, prospered, then moved on.

There are a lot of oil boom towns in western Pennsylvania that look like Westbrook. Storefronts turned into slabs and no windows.  The telling sign is that their is an inadequacy of residential surrounding it. The area never got past one generation before it went through an economic cycle. Five Points has been through many more.

I agree the road probably contributed in some way, but in this case I would say there were other mitigating factors involved.

Don't seem comparable to me.
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