Which Downtown Is Ahead? Jacksonville's or Tampa's?

January 21, 2015 37 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Florida's first major cities have more in common than one would imagine in the rise, fall and rebirth of their historic downtown cores. With that in mind, there may be tools and ideas that one community has successfully implemented that the other could benefit from.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP

In the eight years of being involved with Metro Jacksonville, the thought that Jacksonville is different from every other community has been a dominant excuse to why things that work in other places can't work locally.

It's a thought that many in the past have used to justify doing absolutely nothing to improve the community, despite being in the political position to do so.

It's also a bunch of bologna. Nothing is new under the sun and the Jacksonville's failures and struggles aren't unique to Duval County's largest municipality.

While walking along the streets of downtown Tampa on a late December weekend, I could not help be notice the similarities between the downtowns of Florida's first big cities.

For starters, both became industrial powerhouses in the early 20th century; Jacksonville with shipbuilding and Tampa with cigar manufacturing. Both were major players in Henry Flagler and Henry Plant's competition to expand their railroad empires and hotel resorts across Florida and the downtowns of both cities benefited as a result. Flagler's Jacksonville Terminal was the largest train station south of Washington, DC. Plant's 500-room Tampa Bay Hotel was Florida's most extravagant resort prior to the Great Depression.

Downtown Tampa and Jacksonville during the 1940s.

The historical land development pattern of both city's downtowns also share a lot in common. Jacksonville's Northbank borders the St. Johns River and Tampa's downtown is situated along the Hillsborough River. Bay Street is to Jacksonville what Ashley Street is to Tampa. Historically, railyards and wharfs were located between these streets and each respective city's river. Both urban areas experienced decline and significant loss of historical building stock with the construction of Interstates 95 and 275 during the mid-20th century. Both failed in their late 20th century attempts to transform their retail epicenters into pedestrian promenades. Jacksonville's failure was the transformation of Hemming Park into Hemming Plaza. By the time the heart of the city was paved over, nearly all of the Northbank's flagship department stores had shuttered their downtown locations.  Tampa's conversion of Franklin Street into a pedestrian mall ultimately resulted in the same fate.

When it comes mass transit, both communities have had their dance with people movers, festival marketplaces and convention centers. However, there are also some major differences. In Jacksonville, riverwalks have existed on both sides of the St. Johns River for more than two decades now. Tampa is just moving forward with finally getting their first fully connected. On the other hand, Tampa has implemented both Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and streetcars in or near downtown with varying degrees of success and failure.  In Jacksonville, construction on the city's first BRT route is just getting underway and dreams of streetcars returning remain dreams as the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) attempts to invest in a people mover system that has failed to live up to initial expectations after 25 years of operation.

With that in mind, this article isn't about which city is doing better at bringing their downtown back to life.  It's a simple attempt to show areas where both can possibly learn from each other.

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