What 1910 Knew About Rebuilding Downtown That We Don't

July 5, 2016 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

For 50 years now, various bodies have attempted to redevelop downtown. Billions of dollars have been spent. Anyone can see the result. And yet our City has completely rebuilt its downtown before---starting from complete destruction and creating a bustling metropolis in only ten years. (a fifth of the time its taken our various Downtown Redevelopment Agencies.) Find out how they did it after the jump.

The intersection of Bay and Main Streets in 1901, immediately after the Great Fire.

May 3, 1901 was the day that 146 blocks of Jacksonville burned to the ground in what would become known as the country's third largest urban disaster by fire.  Destroying over 2,000 buildings, this event now known as the Great Fire of 1901, would forever change the face of Jacksonville by ushering in an unprecedented period of rapid population growth and rebuilding.

Within a decade of the Great Fire, over 13,000 new buildings and thought provoking architectural styles would grace the city's streets as the population nearly doubled.

Rebuilding a downtown environment doesn't have to be rocket science.  More important than focusing on major newspaper headline grabbing gimmick projects is creating a dynamic mixed use infrastructure within a compact, pedestrian-scale setting.  And we don't have to travel the world to find out how to do this, we can learn from ourselves by turning back the clock to May 3, 1901.

The intersection of Bay and Main Streets in 1910.

The intersection of Bay and Main Streets in 2016.

This 1910 image of the reconstructed intersection of Bay and Main Streets is important because its only 10 years after the Great Fire completely destroyed downtown. In less than a decade, the business men and residents managed to create one of the most bustling downtowns of the south.  One destined to become the 13th largest city in America.  It also illustrates the basic components of a viable downtown streetscape.  It shows mixed use development, walkable streets, ground level building interaction with adjacent sidewalks, multiple modes of transportation, all within a compact pedestrian scale setting, ---all before those words ever entered into the planning industry lexicons.  And they are just as important to any ultimate success as they were in 105 years ago.  This is something that is being demonstrated in urban areas across the country, as the ideas of New Urbanism have transformed one downtown after another.

Take a closer look at what the street scene illustrates from a planning point of view.

The buildings feature a mix of uses.  There are stores on the bottom, hotels, apartments, and offices on the upper floors.

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