On October 15, 2012, Mayor Alvin Brown signed the resolutions leading to the authorization of the nine member Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) to move forward with the task of revitalizing downtown Jacksonville. According to Mayor Brown, "The DIA marks an important step in making Jacksonville the most vibrant and competitive city it can be." Depending on the policies the DIA decide to endorse, the DIA has the potential to either make this statement true or put the final nails in downtown's coffin. Here are four issues the DIA will need to address that will be more important to the future of downtown than the implementation and make up of the agency itself.
1. Overlooking the importance of urban design
Everbank's recent move to downtown illustrates the importance of urban design with every downtown deal. While landing the company represents a major coup for the area, the failure to highlight or address the exposure of retail on the tower's ground level restricts the relocation's overall potential on the immediate surrounding area.
Take a visit to the Jacksonville Public Library's Special Collections Department and you'll find several downtown redevelopment documents and vision plans collecting dust. Pick up a recently released Metro Jacksonville produced Cohen Brothers, The Big Store book, and you'll find that many of the same topics involving downtown revitalization today were alive and well forty years ago. In the meantime, billions of dollars have been invested on riverwalks, sports facilities, streetscapes, convention centers, parks, etc. and the parachute slowing downtown's fall from grace still hasn't fully opened.
Upon closer inspection, you'll discover that we tend to focus too much time on big ticket items, like a new courthouse or convention center, and not enough time or energy on making sure every project, large and small, properly interacts with the pedestrian scale environment around it. Needless to say, this is how we end up with Parador garage projects, retail in office towers that can't been seen from the street, and $350 million courthouses without sidewalks. All represent millions of dollars invested, but lost opportunities to stimulate pedestrian scale vibrancy. The ultimate success of the DIA will hinge on its ability to understand, stress, and simply demand all downtown development to integrate and add to the pedestrian scale environment surrounding it.
This Arlington, VA office building represents how integrating street level retail with the pedestrian environment surrounding it can add life to the street. Such a concept can be easily applied to the streets and buildings of downtown Jacksonville by better utilizing the businesses already operating in the area.
2. Developing an implementable and incremental downtown "plan"
The Downtown Master Plan of 1971 (above) is one of a long list of redevelopment strategies that were not based on or adaptable to market rate reality. With no idea of what to ultimately do with the failed Shipyards development site (below), it continues to only offer waterfront access to the homeless.
Let's face it. Thousands of new residents and businesses aren't going to fall out of the sky and into downtown's streets tomorrow. Downtown has steadily declined for decades and it will most likely take decades to fully restore the area to the ultimate atmosphere and environment everyone would like to see. Nevertheless, we still have several businesses operating right now that are struggling on a month-to-month basis.
In the past, a major failure of many publicly endorsed downtown redevelopment schemes has been the over-reliance of long term dreams at the expense of market rate short term reality. This is how we've ended up with the Main Street Pocket Park and the still abandoned and inaccessible patch of riverfront grass, known as the Shipyards.
While most redevelopment specialists will claim increasing downtown's immediate residential population base should be the highest priority, it should be understood and accepted that such an effort will take years to materialize in the attraction of retail and entertainment uses that many envision. That's not to speak poorly of downtown. Instead, this is just simple market, demographic, and development related reality.
However, this doesn't mean all is lost short term. It just means that we should not look at or treat downtown as a self contained bubble and gated community. Luckily, downtown is surrounded by neighborhoods like Riverside/Avondale, Springfield, San Marco, Durkeeville, etc. where 100,000 residents and additional popular walkable destinations, employers, institutions, and attractions already exist.