Five Drastic Steps To Revive Downtown Jacksonville

November 9, 2010 194 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Desperate times call for desperate measures. While there is no single silver bullet project that will solve all of downtown's ills, here are five major initiatives worth considering.


When we get down to the central problem with downtown, we find that it is at an economic disadvantage with the Southside and other growing and sprawling areas of Northeast Florida. One way to level the playing field is the implementation of a 10-year Philadelphia-style tax abatement program for downtown. This is an economic incentive that doesn't call for immediately removing money from the city's pockets in order to lure market rate development downtown. While many would say that the city loses income annually by not collecting taxes on new development within the zone, an argument could be made that there would be no new development without it.

Center City Philadelphia reaping the benefits of tax abatement.

After years of losing population, the downtown region, known as Center City, is booming, with developments going up and old buildings being transformed into lofts and condominiums.

The construction, fueled by tax breaks, has succeeded in halting the city's 40-year population decline. Center City, which has the nation's third largest downtown residential population, behind New York and Chicago, is experiencing its fifth straight year of increased housing starts, both new and rehabilitated units. Center City's population grew to 88,000 by the end of 2005 from 78,000 in 2000. Even more striking, the number of households rose by 24 percent, according to figures compiled by the Center City District, a business-improvement group.

If a developer renovates or redevelops an old abandoned warehouse into residential property, the property keeps its pre-renovation value, for tax purposes, for 10 years.

The program, which started with residential conversions in 1997 but expanded to new construction in 2000, holds the tax assessment at a property's predevelopment level for 10 years. The Bars, for instance, pay just $1,200 a year in property taxes rather than the $12,000 they would pay without the abatement on their $1.1 million 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath condo designed by SHoP Architects of New York City.

"In the beginning, the abatement program was 100 percent responsible for getting things going," said Paul Levy, president of Center City District, which was formed in 1990 to address the decline of downtown Philadelphia. "Now there is a discussion going on about whether or not it's still needed."
Source: Tax Breaks Drive a Philadelphia Boom:


If history has taught us anything, it should be that reliable fixed transit drives and stimulates market rate economic development. It's also something urbanites expect as a part of a vibrant urban atmosphere. If we really want to spur jobs and pedestrian friendly development, one of the cheapest ways to do this is to establish a fixed circulator line that connects major pedestrian friendly destinations together. Those existing destinations will generate initial ridership and the private funded infill development that follows will eventually fill in the gaps. At the end of the day, downtown becomes a part of a larger urban neighborhood with multiple activity centers and living options.

Baltimore's vibrant Inner Harbor

Did You Know?

 Every $1 spent on public transit projects generates on average $6 in local economic activity. (Source: American Public Transportation Association)

 Between 3,140 and 5,700 jobs are generally created for every $100 million invested in public transit. (Source: Cambridge Systematics, Inc.)

 Research shows that businesses realize a gain in sales of three times the public sector investment in transit ; a $100 million transit investments results in a $300 million increase in business sales. (Source: Cambridge Systematics, Inc.)

Need convincing? Here are four "before and after" examples of transit circulators stimulating economic development, downtown revitalization and job creation.


More than $6 billion in development has occurred along Portland’s MAX light rail lines since the decision to build in 1978 (Source: TriMet, Portland, Oregon).  Portland’s streetcar line also has generated $2.8 billion in investments. Between 1997 and 2005, 7,200 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of commercial development occurred in the Pearl District, once a blighted industrial area near the line.


But proponents say Tampa's Teco Line Streetcar System has delivered on another front: helping to spur development. Some $450 million in residential and retail space is complete along the route, most of it in the Channel District, a once-languishing maritime neighborhood. With another $450 million in development underway and $1.1 billion in the planning stages, local officials expect the district to be home to as many as 10,000 residents within the next decade.

Like stadiums, convention centers, and aquariums, streetcars have emerged as a popular tool in the effort to revitalize downtowns in the U.S. About a dozen cities, from Madison, Wis., to Miami, are planning lines. But while research shows that big-ticket projects such as ballparks largely fail to spawn economic development, evidence is mounting that streetcars are indeed a magnet.


Dallas began building light rail in 1996. Within five years, the 45-mile line generated $3.3 billion in private investment, 32,000 jobs, and 39-53% greater growth in property value than elsewhere in the city.  The investment has continued to $4.26 billion in commercial and residential investments directly related to the rail system (“transit-oriented development”).  The projects have included restaurants, retail shops, professional offices, thousands of housing units, movie theaters, hotels, performing arts centers, and more. (Source: Center for Economic Development and Research, University of North Texas).


Charlotte just opened the LYNX Blue Line, offering fast, convenient light-rail service along a 9.6-mile route between uptown Charlotte and I-485. There has been $1.87 billion in investment and development along the city’s South Corridor, in large part because of the light rail system (Source: UNC Charlotte’s Center for Transportation Studies, April 2007).  About 50 new development projects have been sparked in Uptown Charlotte, including 3,350 new condominium and apartment units, seven new office projects, two new retail projects, and three hotels (Source: Reconnecting America).


Nobody likes to give away the house but this economic downfall and the rising home foreclosure rate indicates that sometimes it's something that must be done to turn things around. Numerous cities have done just this to attract destinations to their downtown's to anchor their revitalization plans. One example can be found in Lakeland, FL. In the mid-1990s, that city turned its downtown around by actively recruiting companies to abandoned city owned properties. After failing to land Sony Corporation and the State Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the city hit the jackpot with Publix and Watkins Motor Lines.

This former Burdines department store was virtually given to Watkins to get them to relocate their headquarters to downtown Lakeland.

One of the largest trucking companies in the nation will take over a vacant downtown Lakeland department store in an expansion that will create 300 to 450 jobs within five years.

Watkins Motor Lines Inc. of Lakeland will spend $4.2 million in improvements to the 140,000-square-foot Burdines building after the store is moved to Lakeland Square Mall at the end of the year.

The administrative jobs would average $9 an hour, and would generate an annual payroll of $6 million. The 300 full-time positions will be added gradually over five years. The company will continue to operate its facilities at Griffin Road in north Lakeland at its current level.

Steven Newhouse, vice president of human resources for Lakeland-based Watkins , said the company hasn't decided what departments will be moved to the Burdines building.

Under the proposal, the company would pay the downtown authority $1 a year for 20 years with an option to buy. Watkins also would pay the $70,000 annual taxes on the building, plus insurance and maintenance costs.

The 25-year-old building is appraised at about $2.4 million.

The expansion was necessary because of the growth of the company, which President John Watkins estimated at 18 percent a year since 1980. He said the company should double in size in the next 4 1/2 years. Watkins Motor Lines has about 6,000 employees nationwide in 29 states, including 930 in Florida, and 620 in Polk County. The privately owned company has about 8,000 or more vehicles, Watkins said. He declined to reveal profits. Watkins had total revenue of $327 million in 1992, according  to the Virginia-based American Trucking Association, making it the 21st largest trucking company in the nation.

On Monday, exuberant members of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority agreed to a contract with Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Burdines, to accept the 140,000-square-foot building for $10 and lease it back to the store for the rest of the year for $10.
Source: Tampa Tribune - Truck line to expand in Lakeland - 06/21/94

In addition to Watkins and Publix, the Lakeland was also able to land this Suntrust Bank office building on a former city owned surface parking lot.

LAKELAND -- Publix Super Markets plans to move 350 to 500 clerical workers from its corporate headquarters to the vacant JCPenney building downtown , city officials said.

A proposed lease between the grocery story company and the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority is being developed by the company, said Jim Edwards, executive director of the LDDA. The lease, subject to the approval of the downtown agency, should go to downtown board members within two weeks, Edwards said.

The deal resembles a similar agreement made in June with Watkins Motor Lines, Edwards said. Watkins has agreed to expand its operations into the Burdines building. Burdines is moving to Lakeland Square mall later this year.

Publix workers are crowded in their campus on George Jenkins Boulevard.

Sources said the proposal being negotiated would have Publix pay $1 a year for 20 years with an option to buy the 120,000-square-foot building. Publix would pay the $36,000 annual taxes, although other options have been discussed.

The company also would pay the estimated $4 million to $5 million in repairs to the JCPenney building.

Sources said the company could begin moving its employees into the downtown building by late summer.

Publix Super Markets Inc. has a "fully executed" agreement with the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority to lease the vacant JCPenney building, said Publix spokesman Clayton Hollis. He declined to elaborate.

Greg Mugg of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority board said the move shows Publix -- along with Watkins -- has Lakeland 's interest at heart.

"They could have built on their campus but instead they're putting their money in downtown ," he said. "They have deliberately made a social and conscientious decision to benefit the whole city. This will ensure the stability of downtown .

"Instead of having to blow up the JCPenney building, it will be transformed to a place where people are living and working," Mugg said.
Source: Tampa Tribune - Publix plans move to JCPenney's - 09/23/94


Most urban downtowns have charged for parking since the mid-20th century. When things are great, this may not be an obstacle in attracting and retaining businesses. When your downtown is a declining shell of its former self, it may be time to reconsider failing policies and listen to the companies bailing the downtown environment. Not only did Lakeland virtually give away large and well maintained city owned buildings to attract corporations downtown, they also had to throw in parking to close those deals.

Publix , which opens Oct. 1, is expected to bring 500 jobs downtown within five years. Watkins Motor Lines Inc. is moving a comparable number of employees to the former Burdines building downtown . Construction has started, with a projected moving date set in July.

But it comes with a price.

The $93,000 would pay for improvements to the garage at Orange Street and Massachusetts Avenue and the parking lot next to Florida Citrus Mutual.

The deal would provide a permanent parking solution for the two large companies. The city will lease its 714-space garage at Orange and Massachusetts to Publix and Watkins.

Assistant City Attorney Tim McCausland said the garage will not be available to the public because the companies will be moving their data processing operations downtown . Data processing is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation, so the garages will be in use full time.

City Manager Gene Strickland said the money is being well spent to stimulate economic development downtown and in the city.

"In Alabama they give $35 million to people [to attract economic development]," Strickland said. "We don't give money in Lakeland . Is it [the parking deal] a good thing? Yes. The buildings and the garage will sit vacant forever if we don't do anything. This will generate more money in a month than it has in the last five to eight years."

Publix and Watkins are paying $10 to $12 a space per month. City figures show Lakeland could receive up to $2 million over the 20-year lease.

The Lakeland Downtown Development Authority will lease the building to Publix for $1 a year. Publix may purchase it at any time for an unspecified, nominal amount. Publix also will pay taxes on the building.

The development authority owns the 120,000-square-foot building, but the city is paying the bills and is providing the parking, which makes the deal viable.
Source: Tampa Tribune - Parking deal comes at a cost - City: $93,000 outlay worthwhile - 02/20/95

The End Result

The jobs brought more people downtown. Today, about 9,000 people work downtown, 1,200 of them at Watkins and Publix.
Source: Restaurants and retailers make it the place to be. -

So what was the cost of subsidizing parking and giving away abandoned owned city property to lure high paying jobs to downtown? The cost resulted in the transformation of a district from an abandoned, blighted vagrant hangout into one of Central Florida's most vibrant downtowns. Fifteen years later, no one has complained about these deals and these companies still anchor downtown today.


The San Diego Convention Center anchors the waterfront and the vibrant Gaslamp District.

One thing that every vibrant American downtown has is pedestrian oriented connectivity. That's one of the major things downtown Jacksonville lacks. While it is certainly debatable that a larger convention center will spur growth in the local convention industry, the positive impact of a center anchoring the heart of the Northbank is not. San Diego's experience suggests that a well placed convention center does have the ability to anchor a vibrant urban setting.

In 1989, the long-awaited San Diego Convention Center opened its doors for business, the first in a series of infrastructure improvements that would transform San Diego's once neglected waterfront into the sophisticated urban mecca it is today.

In addition, getting the convention center out of the LaVilla allows the old terminal to be converted back into its original use. That's a use that could easily rise to the top of this list itself.

Article by Ennis Davis