A Case For Downtown Jacksonville

February 3, 2011 34 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the past year, there have been numerous formal and informal civic conversations about the current plight of downtown Jacksonville. Last winter, the Times-Union wrote a major feature called the "Downtown Dilemma", and this spring Downtown Vision (DVI) published a White Paper called "Turning the Corner, rethinking and remaking downtown".

The issues of high office vacancy rates, limited residential development, lack of urban activity, decaying historic buildings & civic spaces, a largely inaccessible riverfront, and challenges with providing social services have been well chronicled. These issues are not unique to Jacksonville; however, the city has fallen behind other cities across the nation in its response to the crisis, despite an enviable world-class urban riverfront setting and rich corporate & civic downtown history.

Recognizing this, many local organizations have “claimed” the revitalization of downtown Jacksonville as a high priority, including: the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, NAIOP, Urban Land Institute, Jacksonville Civic Council, and other civic and professional organizations. Additionally, the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission (JEDC) and DVI are organizations that have, as their primary focus, downtown’s improvement and development.

One could argue that despite the well-documented challenges and numerous conversations, a sufficient case hasn’t yet been made to translate the talk into action. If Jacksonville is going to alter the course of decline and deliver an improved quality of life to its residents, urgent action is necessary. History tells us that the consequences of the status quo are dire. The good news is that the “bones” of the city and downtown waterfront setting are world class, and Jacksonville’s potential to emerge as a premier Great City in the region and nation is unparalleled.

The following statements illustrate downtown’s crucial role in the region, and helps define the case for urgent action and policy that prioritizes the revitalization of Jacksonville’s downtown:

“Making the Case”:

A city’s Downtown is a reflection of how a community sees itself. It is a critical factor in business retention and recruitment efforts. Studies show that when industries & businesses that attract a highly educated workforce begin looking at a community as a possible location, they examine many aspects, including those that define the quality of life. Today’s young, educated workforce has a particular emphasis and interest in quality of life in downtown — is it alive and viable, or does it represent local disinterest and failure?

A city's Downtown represents its image to the outside world. A vibrant, dynamic downtown is a message to the world that a city is forward thinking, energetic and fun.

The U.S. Census shows that 64% of college-educated 25-34 year-olds said they looked for a job only after they chose which city to live in. Quality of Life is considered the Number One criteria these workers apply in selecting a city.

Downtown is, traditionally, an indicator of the local business climate and the quality of the public/private partnership in a community.

Downtowns are major employers, with the ability to support a greater number and concentration of jobs, at all salary levels, in a compact neighborhood or collection of neighborhoods.

Downtown is typically the home of independent, family-owned businesses. Independent businesses are more likely to support local schools, charities and community projects; and reinvest profits locally

Downtown is an important incubator for new small businesses and emerging industries.

Downtown represents a vast amount of public and private investment that has already been made. The costs to recreate all the public infrastructure and buildings already existing in Jacksonville’s central business district and surrounding urban neighborhoods is (has been) staggering – as are the costs of transportation & utility infrastructure to serve far reaching development. These costs of infrastructure and expanded maintenance continue to accrue at the expense of downtown.

There is great waste of past dollars spent if downtown is neglected.

A Bank of America study reveals that sprawl reduces quality of life, increases the attractiveness of other more dense cities, and yields higher direct business costs and taxes to offset the side-effects of sprawl.

The highest possible density of healthy businesses in buildings assessed at full value helps reduce the tax burden on homeowners.

A healthy Downtown has a positive impact on the property values of nearby surrounding residential neighborhoods.

A healthy Downtown helps reduce sprawl. By building density in the heart of the community, we make cities more livable, utilize existing transportation infrastructure, and protect the region’s natural environmental character.

Downtown is the heart of a community for a mix of goods and services: government, professional, technical and cultural destinations.

Downtown is an important community space where all members of a community can meet and interact. Downtown is where you’ll typically find monuments to a city’s history, great civic parks, community festivals & events.

Downtown Jacksonville has the great fortune to be centered on the region’s greatest natural feature, the St Johns River and its expansive (mostly) publicly held waterfront.

A city’s downtown is often a major tourist draw. When people travel, they want to see unique, genuine places. With Jacksonville’s waterfront setting and rich history, there isn’t a downtown like it in the world. Many people want to visit downtown when they visit Jacksonville for business, conventions, golf, football games, festivals, or special events. They want to check out downtown. They want to see something unique, they want to enjoy great civic spaces, they want to engage the river in many different ways, and they want to see the history, the small shops. They don’t want run-of-the-mill chain & big box stores, or contrived “entertainment districts” that could be located anywhere.

Young college-educated workers and retiring Boomers are actively seeking to live in dense, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars - that is, cities or revitalized outskirts in which residences, shops, schools, parks, and other amenities exist close together. Today it’s these urban neighborhoods that are exciting and diverse and exploding with growth.

The American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion link sprawl to obesity.

Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman finds commuting has the most negative effect on people’s moods.

Economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer conclude that commuters who live an hour from work need to earn 40% more money than if they were non-commuters.

A downtown provides a sense of community and place. As Carol Lifkind, author of Main Street: The Face of Urban America, said “...as Main Street, it was uniquely American, a powerful symbol of shared experiences, of common memory, of the challenge, and the struggle of building a civilization... Main Street was always familiar, always recognizable as the heart and soul of the village, town or city.”

Article by Steve Lovett