2007: Hemming Park Dark, May Hurt Laura Street Corridor

December 21, 2015 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The following article was originally published April 10, 2007. For several months in 2007 there was serious discussion of the development of the Laura Street Corridor to provide an initial street traffic creating backbone from whence to spread a vibrant city center development.The idea that the creation of a strip featuring destinations that are open after sundown would create walking traffic and pedestrian life at street level by giving the public a variety of things to do in a relatively compact area.

Nothing makes a more visual statement about recreation and safety like the sight of lively sidewalk activity and people walking around enjoying themselves.  Think about it, if you drive past a street and there are lots of people walking around and you can see open cafes and shops, chances are you will be interested enough to check it out.

This is the concept behind the corporate practice of 'clustering', in which allied corporate shops go into a depressed area, buy up property on the cheap and then open simultaneously.  One of the most successful clustering alliances in the country is the Starbucks/Safeway/Mondo Burrito/Noah's Bagels/ Schwartz Deli groups.  The thing that makes these groups successful in urban areas is that rather than opening one big box with all parties inside the building, they open multiple storefronts onto the street, and in the process create foot traffic.  The sight of so much activity creates its own energy, and in no time a depressed real estate market is on its way up.

It is this very element which has been lacking for decades in the downtown.

The next month will decide how and how quickly that start point will be established, as key buildings, businesses and developers are interacting in a process that will either seriously hamper this vision, or make it happen all at once.

At the center of this dynamic is the property shuffling and musical chairs being played out in Hemming Park between two of downtown's largest property owners and the City of Jacksonville.

The Cleanup of Hemming Park.

Without active street life, an area can become the opposite of 'vibrant' and be downright forbidding, if not actually scary.

Consider the long time plight of Hemming Park, which was once the jewel of downtown and the center of the second largest retail base in the South.

The long berated Hemming Plaza  'improvements' of 1984 had the unintended effect of closing every major retail outlet left in the downtown, starting with most of the shops that encircled the park.

With the May Cohen's building empty, the park began to deteriorate.

The Seminole Club closed, as did the old Morrison's cafeteria building.

The Haverty's building closed and within a few short years, the Snyder Memorial Cathedral lost its congregation, desanctified the structure and converted its use over into a Soup Kitchen and Homeless Shelter.

During this period, the area became a frightening place indeed, reaching an absolute nadir in the mid 90s.

By 1999, the City Hall had relocated to Hemming Park in the old May Cohen's Building, and the soup kitchen closed.

But the park itself had become the gathering place for some of the most egregious criminal activity imaginable.  Mentally unstable individuals competed violently for space on the park benches and at night all the bushes were quivering with the activities of its many residents.

This writer knows from personal experience, as he lived in a loft overlooking Hemming Park, both in 1990 and in the same location from 1999 to 2002.

There were big crazy scary people who we had to get to know in order to properly look after our safety if only to avoid the dangerous ones,

La Cena restaurant was the only thing open for a while near the park, and La Cena's customers are the type that one would meet at their cars and escort into the building.

When Boomtown opened in late 2005, there were over a hundred people a night sleeping in the park, a number that increased after the opening of the Main Library with its couches and free internet.  Its night time crowds proved to be the catalyst that cleaned up the park by constantly calling police attention to the constant hijinks.

Things heated up after the beating assault of a 16 year old employee at Boomtown and a notorious youtube.com video of a downtown vagrant taking a huge and very disgusting bowel movement all over a planter right in front of La Cena's front door.

The incidents brought enough public attention that the crime and riotous behavior was cracked down on over night.

Now Hemming Park is clean and safe at night, with a very positive and active police presence all throughout the day.

As a result, crowds are beginning to return to the park with intentions other than dealing crack or sleeping in the bushes in mind.

It happened because after 20 years, there was street traffic, and people in the area at night.

However, the Park is not as vibrant as it already could be, and that is partially because of its concentration of buildings that go dark at 6 pm.

Here is a layout of how Hemming Park is presently laid out, depicting the buildings that are only open during the day in red, the buildings that are completely dark in black, and the one business that is open at night in yellow.

Hemming Park in its current configuration.

Believe it or not, the difference that was made by ONE business that opened up onto the park at night created the impetus to clean the park.  Imagine if the tenants surrounding the park had a higher number of night time shops and restaurants among them.

At this very moment, the dynamics of Hemming Park are about to change again, perhaps leaving the park totally deserted again at night, and seriously cutting into the foot traffic that is generated during the day.

The Park Place Plaza Building, owned by Robert Van Winkel and his partners, is the home to four well attended cafes and restaurants that bring hundreds of people every day into Hemming Park.  One of the tenants, Boomtown, brings hundreds more into the area at night.

As documented in the Daily Record, this building is slated to empty and change use in only a couple of months to a much lower density usage that will significantly decrease the amount of foot traffic into Hemming Park.  It will also close the only establishment in the area open at night.

At least regularly.  In a few months, the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art will be keeping Cafe Nola open on Wednesday nights and possibly open a little later on Friday nights, but will be closed more often than not.

And Chamblin's Book Mine is slated to open in a couple of months, with a possible night schedule for its cafe, if the business warrants it, but if Boomtown closes in Hemming Park, night time hours would be extremely unlikely.

Here is a layout reflecting how Hemming Park will remain almost completely dark if this is indeed the course taken.

Hemming Park if Boomtown and the art gallery close.


However there is a proposal on the table which would keep the foot traffic in Hemming Park as well as keeping the night time businesses open---in fact, expanding on them, and finally tying a vibrant Hemming Park into the Laura Street backbone.

Under this proposal, Boomtown Theatre would move into the abandoned Snyder Building at the Corner of Laura and Monroe Street, expanding their offerings in the new building.  With the opening of Boomtown at Snyder, the Art Center would keep late night hours at the new working studio facility located at Hogan and Laura, and Chamblin's Bookmine would stay open at night.  Check out how many night time establishments would then face out onto a park that has been kept deserted for years in the following layout.

Hemming Park under new proposal.

As you can see here, Hemming Park would have four venues that open directly out onto the fountains and park, making it a pedestrian parkway once again for the first time since the closings of Furchgott's and May Cohens.  All of the people on the sidewalks and streets would bring with them hundreds more eyes and ears and make it the safest it has been since the 60s.  Although the City Hall and the Federal Courthouse will close by their very natures at sundown, dampening the potential vibrancy of the area for pedestrians, they will also provide a steady stream of well heeled customers into the venues themselves.

Ideally a new landowner could be found for the Historic Seminole Club, one who would actually let it be occupied, and then there would be business opening onto the park from every corner.

It is one of the overlooked facts of urban renewal that the best laid plans of city and state can be undone by poor planning, or by forgetting the importance of the interaction an area has with the public by design.

Such is the case with the untold millions that have been spent on the recovery of Hemming Park.

Even after the city bought and renovated the St. James Building as City Hall, and the Skyway station had been built and opened, and the hundred million dollar Federal Courthouse had been built, it wasn't until there was pedestrian traffic at night that the park got cleaned up.  That was partially because of the opening of two restaurants opening and cooperating with the authorities to create change.  When no one was going to Hemming Park at night, no one cared what happened there.  Once paying customers were having to use the park, then things started happening again.

This was because of the accidental design of land use.  Obviously if every business in a district closes at 6, then all sorts of things happen at night with no supervision or prevention.

It is one of the lessons that the city has never learned.

Additionally, by solving this looming setback in Hemming Park, the city could pro-actively create dynamic energy in its downtown by having a second anchor open up in proximity to the Jacksonville Landing.

An amped up and re energized Hemming Park area would have enormous effects on the Laura Street Corridor.

An established Laura St corridor.

By simply moving the night time business to the corner of Laura and Monroe, the business becomes an anchor both for Hemming Park itself, as well as Laura Street.

Check out the layout of the proposed move and notice that a Boomtown facing Laura would then create energy with Chamblins and LaCena, as they would then all be within line of vision with each other.  Activity on the Laura side of Boomtown would create walking traffic back and forth, and serve as a safe landmark connecting to Hemming Park itself.

With Hemming Park at one end, and The Landing at the other end, Laura itself would then have critical mass to become a walkable district in the downtown.

This would be ideal, since everywhere pedestrian traffic flows it causes positive change in its wake.

So then this is the proposal that would make the most sense for Hemming Park and Downtown.  All that remains is for it to happen.


Stephen Dare