The 1992 Downtown White Paper: Catastrophe

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In 1992 five years had passed since the 1987 plan which reformulated the 1972 Master Plan. In the twenty that had passed since the '72 Plan was implemented, most of the elements of that strategy had been executed. Massive redevelopment of the Hemming Park area, the implementation of the ASE, the reconstruction of the Riverfront, the installment of the "Loop System" and the deliberate creation of "Pedestrian Malls". The Result: Complete, crashing failure at the expense of a billion dollars of taxpayer money. The renovations obliterated the retail district, the loop system stifled connectivity and confused downtown patrons, the Skyway was a non starter connecting nothing directly to nothing, right through the middle of nothing. By 1992 it was apparent that the new riverfront development, the Jacksonville Landing, was headed for trouble.

To catch up on the plans read our article about the 1971 plan and the 1987 update.  

The following report is the much discussed "White Paper" that led to the River City Renaissance and to the formation of a Business Improvement District, which in turn created the Downtown Vision Inc. group.

Consider the dire wording and shocking statistics below, and note that even 20 years ago, the planners and leaders of the Downtown were aware that they were facing a situation of historic proportions.

A historic note about this White Paper.  The group of men and women who advocated a closer look at the situation downtown were under considerable pressure not to even admit there was a problem.  Considering the immensity of the disaster, it was quite a feat to speak publicly about it, despite the fact that it was plainly obvious.  

One of the leaders of this group was Jack Diamond, who was popularly known as Mr. Downtown, as a result of his constant advocacy and public speaking on the subject.  Diamond, in one of the more ironic twists of fate, ended up advocating the largest wholesale demolition and destruction of the downtown since the Great Fire, resulting in the shocking moonscape that greets us in the present day.

Tommy Hazouri had just been defeated for the Mayor's Office by the handsome State's Attorney, Ed Austin.  Austin was backed by former Mayor Jake Godbold, who oversaw the largest modernization and expansion of the Downtown Corporate base in the history of the City.

However, Austin was also an opponent of the Skyway, which at the time was the same thing as being opposed to mass transit, as it was the only plan which the JTA was proposing.

Commentary provided in blue.

Downtown Jacksonville:  A Turning Point
The Decline of Downtown

Jacksonville now faces an urban development paradox that threatens the future of the community as a whole. The heart of Jacksonville is not healthy. In the decade since 1980, Jacksonville's central business district has experienced an unprecedented series of setbacks, including:

•The departure of five major department stores (Sears, Penney's, Furchgott's, May Cohens and Ivey's) and two well-established clothing stores (Rosenblum's and Levy Wolf). Of these all but Furchgott's continue to operate stores in the suburbs.

•Departure to the suburbs of Alliance Mortgage Company, SWD/BancBoston, Barnett Banks' operating subsidiaries and a large part of Blue Cross and Blue Shield's operations.

•The loss of Gulf Life Insurance Company to Nashville.

•The bankruptcy and eventual sale of the Charter Companies.

•The departure from downtown of Florida National Bank, Jacksonville National Bank, Southeast Bank, Duval Federal, First Federal and NCNB, many through merger with other institutions.

•An increased perception that downtown is a crime-ridden area.

•A significant increase in the number of homeless people, particularly in and around Hemming Plaza.

•A sharp increase in the vacancy rate in downtown office building from an estimated 3% in 1980 to an estimated 20% in 1992.

•The virtual abandonment of the Hemming Plaza area by merchants and office users.

•The closing of the former Robert Meyer/City Center Hotel, and the bankruptcy of both major Southbank hotels.

•The state selection of an area on the periphery of downtown for its new state office complex rather than a site in the core city.

The result is downtown with a 2-block strip of glistening new skyscrapers hemmed in by block after block of vacant or severely under-utilized buildings, many of which 10 years ago housed the City's most fashionable stores and prestigious offices. To a visitor viewing Jacksonville from a passing automobile on the Fuller Warren Bridge, the City has never looked so progressive or prosperous. On the streets, the view is considerably different — plywood has become the window treatment of choice, the streets hold few shoppers even at Christmas and those people who do venture downtown after dark move quickly and warily from their cars to the Florida Theatre, the Landing or the Civic Auditorium.

Until relatively recently, Jacksonville residents generally went "downtown" for shopping, dining and entertainment as well as to work. All of Jacksonville's major department stores were located downtown as well as all of the City's first-class hotels, with their popular dining and entertainment facilities. While a few movie theaters were developed in the close-in suburbs, the principal first-run theaters were located downtown.

With post-war population increases came the need for housing, producing a quest for available land that took residents and developers further and further away from downtown. As in other metropolitan areas, as suburban Jacksonville developed, businesses saw advantages in moving to office parks (five major suburban office park developments were created between 1960 and 1990). Similar patterns were evident in the development of ever larger and more sophisticated suburban shopping complexes

(three regional shopping malls in excess of 3.3 million square feet were developed from 1960 to 1990 as well as four smaller enclosed malls). Clearly, businesses, employees and residents who once acknowledged downtown Jacksonville as the center of commerce and activity were finding suburban areas increasingly attractive.

Today there is little retail activity in the downtown area outside of the Jacksonville Landing except for fast food and sandwich shops catering to the lunchtime market and a limited number of upscale specialty retailers with established clienteles. In downtown Jacksonville there is one deluxe hotel on the Northbank and two struggling hotels on the Southbank. There is not a single movie theater. After work, on the weekends and on holidays, the streets of downtown Jacksonville are virtually deserted. Except for a few high- rise complexes catering to the elderly and some substandard tenement housing, there is virtually no residential activity in downtown Jacksonville.

The events of downtown have not all been negative during the past decade. In contrast to the decline that downtown is experiencing at present, development of downtown reached unprecedented levels during the mid to late 1980s. The Jacksonville Landing, the Southbank Riverwalk and the Prime Osborn Convention Center all opened during this period. Additionally, new buildings were built as headquarters for some of Jacksonville's most prominent business concerns: The Barnett Center, the American Heritage Life Tower, the Southeast Bank Building and the Haskell Building. They were preceded by the large corporate expansions of Prudential Insurance Company and Southern Bell. However, all of this development has been either within two blocks of the river, and not in the deteriorating older part of downtown, or outside the traditional core city area. Furthermore, all of this new office space, coupled with business mergers and contractions in an already soft market, resulted in significantly higher vacancies and, in some cases, even the near abandonment of older buildings. The exciting developments of this period of time (mid to late 1980s) was achieved at a time of unprecedented nationwide business growth and an altogether different real estate development climate. It is not expected that downtown business districts anywhere will see the same level of growth and private development in the 1990s that was experienced during the 1980s.

It is important to note here that most people in 2010 do not remember a downtown in which the number of banks and large corporations listed as having closed or relocated were headquartered.  The list of companies that abandoned downtown in the five years preceding this report is larger than the number of large corporations that are left in total downtown today.

Even 20 years ago, an era most agree was healthier than the present day, the maximum vacancy rate was still being listed as 20%.

While the report mentions the total destruction of retail, entertainment, and most hotel accommodations, it does not mention the loss of manufacturing, shipping, light industry, or the logistics based enterprises that had been the basis of the Jacksonville economy throughout history.  This would seem to be a glaring oversight to anyone looking to explain the underpinnings of the disaster, and there is an equally important reason behind the omission--- Such an idea simply did not occur to the architects, attorneys, investment bankers, land developers, insurance industry, and real estate magnates who made up the committee.

And really think about that for a moment.  For almost two hundred years, the basis of the wealth of the city was based around logistics, ships, trains, and commerce.  Even the tourist heyday of the area had been based on passenger rail and steamship travel on the river.

Yet there is no mention of any sort of this major component of the economy, which had suffered even more devastating losses than the corporate environment.  There is no discussion of reconnecting rail and ocean vessel travel back to the downtown, nor any discussion of facilitating the riverfront trade and merchant districts which are part of almost every port city in the world.  This literally did not occur to them.

Also notable is the clear discussion about the desire to develop real estate rather than the downtown.  With as many architects, real estate developers, land use attorneys and the like that composed the board, this should not have been a surprise at all.  It would have been an issue with which they were well acquainted.

Finally, it should be noted that there is no false sense of the scope of the disaster which followed the implementation of the 1971 plan. But it is not attributed to the plan itself, nor was it politically possible to do so, as many of the people (including Diamond) who championed the Plan were still politically powerful in the conversation.

Today Jacksonville faces the paradox: the steady growth of the metropolitan area has been accompanied by a marked deterioration of the urban core. Once the focal point for the City's social and business activities, downtown Jacksonville is now becoming a debilitated "has-been." Jacksonville, in seeking to become a "big city," has permitted its very center to crumble. The flight to the suburbs and resulting urban decay are by no means unique to Jacksonville. Most major metropolitan areas experienced similar migrations during the past three decades. Some, such as Portland, Boston, San Jose and Orlando, have countered this trend successfully and their downtowns are actually healthier than they were 20 years ago. Others — such as Detroit and Newark — have suffered declines so serious as to be nearly irreversible. Still other cities — including Jacksonville — have experienced serious deterioration of their traditional core areas but still have a sufficient base remaining to recover if they bring the necessary citizen commitment and civic leadership to bear on their urban problems.

The Issues
Jacksonville's central business district represents a sizeable emotional and economic investment for the citizens of Jacksonville and it is now at risk. It is time for Jacksonville's citizens — including its business, civic and government leaders — to examine the decline of downtown without proprietary bias and address two fundamental questions:

• First, should the decline of downtown Jacksonville be a concern or is it simply the inevitable result of a shift in demographics and shopping patterns?

• Second, if a healthy downtown is important, what can be done to reverse its steady deterioration?

In the first quarter of 1991, the Downtown Initiative/Central Jacksonville Improvement department of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce (CJI) undertook a study to address these fundamental questions. While CJI's conclusions are necessarily subjective in many ways, CJI has attempted where possible to base its analysis and recommendations on empirically verifiable data.

The naivete and vanity involved with asking the questioning whether or not a centralized city is of concern should not go unnoticed.

Is the Condition of Downtown Important?

The people of Jacksonville view downtown and downtown issues from many perspectives, some economic, some historic and some aesthetic. While these perspectives are important, CJI's intention was to determine whether a healthy downtown is important to the City on a more objective basis. In other words, for the Jacksonville citizen with no particular sentimental, economic or other attachment to downtown, does the continuing deterioration of the urban core make any material difference? CJI's conclusion is that the health of downtown Jacksonville has a real and significant impact on that citizen. This impact is felt in the following ways, as will be more fully explored in the following sections of this report:

•  A vital and healthy central business district provides a disproportionate share of tax revenues to be used for the benefit of the entire city.

• Encouraging growth in the downtown area rather than in the emerging suburbs maximizes the return on the community's huge existing investment in transportation, utilities and other infrastructure improvements in downtown.

• Encouraging development in the central business district helps to minimize urban sprawl and maximize the efficiency of the City's existing and future transportation systems.

• A healthy downtown Jacksonville is particularly important to economic the well-being of Jacksonville's minority population, a large proportion of which lives in the close-in Northside and depends on public transportation to get to work and to shopping.

• A healthy downtown is a critical asset in attracting new businesses and jobs to the city.

• A healthy downtown provides a center for cultural and entertainment activities.

• A healthy downtown can provide a focus for more convention and meeting activities, which will, in turn, have a significant positive economic impact.

Article by Stephen Dare

Stephen Dare photo by Toni Smailagic

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