The Basics of Successful Downtown Revitalization

May 11, 2012 14 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Redeveloping a struggling downtown environment doesn't have to be rocket science. More important than focusing on major newspaper headline grabbing gimmick projects is the implementation of a street environment that clusters complementing uses within a compact pedestrian scale setting. Instead of going outside of Jacksonville to display this concept, we'll learn from ourselves by turning back the clock to May 3, 1901.

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 of various thought provoking architectural styles would grace the city's streets as the population swelled from 28,429 to 57,699 residents.  

The intersection of Bay and Main Streets in 1910.

This 1910 image of the reconstructed intersection of Bay and Main Streets illustrates the basic components of the viable downtown streetscape.  The concepts of mixed use development, walkable streets, ground level building interaction with adjacent sidewalks, multiple modes of transportation, all within a compact pedestrian scale setting, are just as important to the area's ultimate success as they were in 102 years ago.  

Let's take a closer look at what this scene illustrates.

The buildings feature a mix of uses.

Sidewalks are pedestrian friendly and walkable, in terms of how adjacent buildings interact with them.

Pedestrian scale amenities include ground level interactive street displays, signage, and walkways that protect pedestrians from the elements.

Buildings in a vibrant downtown tend to activate the street edge with retail and pedestrian scale signage.  

Regardless of use, Jacksonville must find a way to enhance the interaction of existing businesses and buildings with the pedestrian at street level.

In a humid climate like Jacksonville, amenities like awnings that provide shade and visually frame the street should not be overlooked.  Somewhere in the late 20th century we forgot this important yet critical principle.

Pedestrian scaled urban environments should be designed for people, not automobiles.  This means an environment that accommodates multiple modes of mobility should be a high priority.


We've been kicking around the idea of downtown revitalization since the 1950s.  However, historically, we tend to ignore and overlook the basics in favor of expensive one trick pony developments that have continued to fail to deliver the results we hope for.  They say there's nothing new under the sun.  We should apply this line of thinking with every single project related to downtown and the surrounding walkable neighborhoods.

Article and Research by Stephen Dare and Ennis Davis.  Historic imagery courtesy of the Florida State Archives and .