Hemming Plaza vs NYC's Bryant Park: A Tale of Two Parks

What Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza Can Learn from the Historic Restoration of New York’s Bryant Park by Metro Jacksonville contributor Ken Bowen.

Published October 17, 2014 in Cities - MetroJacksonville.com

Bryant Park (Photo by Peter Mauss)

In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, nestled beside the New York Public Library’s flagship branch, lies Bryant Park, one of the most celebrated urban parks in the world. Thousands of New Yorkers flock to the park daily to lounge in the grass, chat with friends over lunch, or connect to the park’s free Wi-Fi network. Year round, Bryant is full of life, from yoga classes in the spring, to movie nights in the summer, to ice skating for the holidays. Bryant Park has received hundreds of awards for its design and operation and in 2010, the American Planning Association called Bryant “the definitive model of urban park restoration and environmental, social, and economic sustainability.”

It’s hard to believe then that just over twenty years ago, this now vibrant park was considered too dangerous to enter by most New Yorkers. Drug-dealers, prostitutes, gamblers, and addicts operated with impunity, and locals joked that the police only entered the park when they needed to retrieve a body. Bryant became known as “Needle Park” because of the discarded syringes littering the ground, and up to 500 felonies were recorded in the park each year. Throughout the 1970s, as New York City teetered on bankruptcy, many considered Bryant Park to be the leading symbol of Manhattan’s decay.

Bryant Park’s historic turnaround in the early 1990s was the result of a ground-breaking public-private partnership between New York City and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) that effectively ceded control of the city-owned urban park over to the nonprofit group. Founded by a handful of influential New Yorkers and guided by the pioneering work of urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte, the BPRC rapidly (and rather cheaply, by Midtown Manhattan standards) transformed the seedy, run-down park into one of the American Planning Association’s best public spaces in the nation.

On the surface, the similarities between New York’s Bryant Park and Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza are striking. Like Bryant Park, Hemming Plaza in anchored by the largest public library in its state. Both parks are bordered by office towers, museums, and some of their respective city’s finest architecture. Mass-transportation directly serves each park, with an elevated Skyway station at the west end of Hemming Plaza and the 42nd Street-Bryant Park subway station at the north end of Bryant Park. And both parks are central to their respective business districts, be it Jacksonville’s Downtown Northbank or Midtown Manhattan.

And, like pre-restoration Bryant Park, Hemming Plaza is Jacksonville’s own paradise lost, a once-grand space that is now perceived by most to be a dangerous block to visit. In a previous lifetime, Hemming was the epicenter of the city, a lush green park surrounded by Jacksonville’s flagship department stores. Now, the typical stories coming out of Hemming Plaza are more likely to involve vagrancy and crime than vibrancy and life. Reports of homeless attacks on teenagers, public intoxication and sex, aggressive panhandling, drug abuse, and open urination and defecation have given Hemming an unsavory reputation. When the decline of Jacksonville’s urban core is discussed, Hemming Plaza is often cited as ground zero.

Like New York in the 1980s, Jacksonville now seeks to restore life to its own fallen public square by handing control of Hemming Plaza over to a local nonprofit group, Friends of Hemming Park (FHP). This unique style of private/public partnership has been duplicated with great success in numerous other cities, including Detroit (Campus Martius Park), Portland (Pioneer Courthouse Square), Houston (Discovery Green and Market Square Park), and Boston (Post Office Square), just to name a few, and Jacksonville’s new partnership with FHP gives Hemming its best chance at success in decades.

Bryant Park (Left), Hemming Plaza (Right)

Friends of Hemming Park

Friends of Hemming Park with Mayor Brown (News4Jax.com)

In August of 2014, on the steps of Hemming Plaza, Mayor Alvin Brown signed control of the city-owned space over to Friends of Hemming Park. FHP founder and President Dr. Wayne Wood told the press, “Hemming Plaza has been at the heart of downtown for over 150 years, and for downtown to be successful, it must have a healthy and vibrant heart. We look forward to making Hemming Plaza just this and it being the first step in revitalizing Downtown Jacksonville.”

Dr. Wood is one of Jacksonville’s premier historians, authoring seminal works on the Great Fire of 1901 and Jacksonville’s historic architecture. Wood established Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), chaired the Historic Landmarks Commission, and most recently, founded the wildly successful Riverside Arts Market.

FHP’s (who plan to restore the area’s original name, Hemming Park) five-member board also includes Bill Prescott (former CFO of the Jacksonville Jaguars), Terry Lorince (Executive Director of Downtown Vision), Diane Brunet-Garcia (Board Member of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville), and Mike Field (downtown activist, event organizer, long-time MetroJacksonville contributor). The Downtown Investment Authority, Downtown Vision, Cultural Council, One Spark, Spark District, and numerous other downtown organizations have also pledged support. Thankfully for Jacksonville, Hemming is in some of the most competent, capable hands in the city.

Vince Cavin, director of operations and finance for the One Spark crowdsourcing festival that annually brings over 100,000 visitors to the downtown core, was chosen to be FHP’s inaugural executive director. Cavin’s first order of business will be moving Friends of Hemming Park into the ground floor of the Main Library, adjacent to Hemming in the space formerly occupied by Shelby’s coffeehouse. Cavin will also be tasked with booking daily entertainment and events, hiring new front-office and park staff (including safety and hospitality workers, a cleaning and beautification crew, and a social services outreach specialist) and executing the board’s short-term and long-term plans for Hemming. FHP has been given a $1 million operating budget for its first 18 months, which includes $200,000 from the Parks Department and an additional $800,000 from the Downtown Investment Authority. During this time, the group will be required to raise $250,000 in additional capital on their own.

As Friends of Hemming Park begin to map out the plaza’s future, it is this guest writer’s humble opinion that FHP should draw broad inspiration from one of the most successful urban renewal projects in American history, the restoration of New York’s Bryant Park.

What follows is a brief case study of Bryant Park, discussing decisions made by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation that proved successful and suggesting similar approaches that Friends of Hemming Park might take now or in the future. Before moving forward though, I would like to make two points clear. First, my intention is not to suggest that Jacksonville pretend to be New York City. We are unique cities, with different population densities and different financial constraints. I instead simply suggest that we work from a proven model, in an eerily similar physical space, that has been successfully replicated in other cities over the last two decades. Secondly, this piece in no way reflects a distrust in Friends of Hemming Park. The space is in successful, proven hands, and FHP have previously cited Bryant Park as an inspiration for future work at Hemming Plaza.

With that said, let’s take a look at Bryant Park.


Bryant Park – A Brief History

Early Bryant Park

In 1686, the land where Bryant Park now sits was declared public property by New York Colonial Governor Thomas Dongan. This area would serve numerous purposes over the next two centuries, most infamously acting as a mass burial ground for the lower class between 1797 and 1803 during New York’s devastating yellow fever pandemics. The bodies were eventually moved by mid-century (most of them, anyway), paving the way for the 1884 establishment and dedication of Bryant Park, named after longtime New York Evening Post editor, William Cullen Bryant.

With construction for the adjacent New York Public Library and the Interborough Rapid Transit subway tunnel raging on for decades, Bryant spent much of the early 20th century looking more like a torn up storage yard than a city park. Once the projects were finally completed, Bryant Park was given a much-needed grand redesign in 1934, intended to transform the congested square into a quiet urban oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of the city around it.

Ironically, it was this celebrated redesign – which elevated Bryant Park four-feet above street level and enclosed it with granite walls, narrow entrances, and tall hedges – that led to the park’s blight in coming decades. The design effectively sealed Bryant off from the streets, making illicit activity alarmingly easy to carry out undetected. A Bryant Park advocate told the New York Times, “It’s incredible, but it seems the park was designed for pushers.” Architectural critic Paul Goldberger joked, “The park could not be seen clearly from the street, and people inside could not see back out to the sidewalk. A set of conditions ideal for drug dealers, but of little comfort to anyone else.”

Bryant Park’s Fortress-Like 1934 Design

Bryant Park Crime Map (1979)

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Bryant Park was a depressing and scary place, with up to 500 felonies recorded each year. Local headlines read, “Bryant Park: An Oasis Rife with Crime,” “Murder Scene in Bryant Park, A Place to Drink and Gamble,” and “Civic Leader Wants Bryant Park Closed.” Drug abuse and violence was rampant, and the under-funded New York Police Department could do little beyond chaining the park’s gates shut at 9:00 PM.

When the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation took control of the park in the 1980s, they partnered with the New York Public Library and sociologist/urban planner William Whyte to begin restoring safety and vibrancy to Bryant Park.

Despite Bryant Park’s troublesome, isolating layout, BPRC’s historic turnaround of the park didn’t necessitate an expensive, radical redesign. In fact, drastic changes weren’t even an option given the park’s status as a protected historic landmark. BPRC instead focused on making a series of small but brilliant tweaks and adjustments that ultimately added up to far more than the sum of their parts. The primary components, which have since proven to be a bit of a magic formula for the restoration of fallen public spaces, include:

• Smart, Safe, Social Design
• Flexibility
• Amenities
• Private Staff
• Programming
• Diverse Sources of Revenue

Smart, Safe, Social Design

In 1979, the New York Public Library -- weary of seeing their backyard used as a restroom and drug den -- hired famed urban planner William H. Whyte to conduct a study of Bryant Park. Whyte spent weeks observing the park before presenting the library with an 88-page report titled “Intimidation or Recreation?” In the report, Whyte concluded that simply increasing visibility and physical access to Bryant Park would go a long way toward transforming it into a vibrant and safe space. Clear sight lines, from both the outside and inside, would make the park more appealing to those on the street and would foster a deeper sense of security for park visitors inside. His suggestions were basic – remove an iron fence here, some shrubbery there, widen entrances and make steps more gradual, improve lighting, and cut through walkways and railing to encourage free-flowing pedestrian movement throughout the park.

Once these suggestions were implemented by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, the results were staggering.  Crime dropped 92%. Annual muggings dropped from 150 to zero. Park visitors more than doubled. When the ASLA presented Bryant Park with a prestigious Landmark Award in 2010, the group marveled at how “the social environment of Bryant Park was transformed within days.”

Following the park’s redesign, the New York Times lauded the improvements, noting that “where once the park was the home of derelicts, drug dealers and drug users, it is now awash with office workers, shoppers, strollers and readers from the New York Public Library next door.” The Times praised the simplicity of the redesign, calling it “a plethora of small changes in an unworkable design that, taken together, fix what was broken.”

William H. Whyte

William Whyte’s unique approach to derelicts and the homeless, a problem shared between 1980s Bryant and modern Hemming Plaza, is also worth noting. While city planners have spent decades trying to create the most uncomfortable environment possible for vagrants, often eliminating seating and shade altogether for fear that the homeless might get too comfortable, Whyte believed this approach counterproductive. “[Undesirables] themselves are not too much of a problem,” he wrote. “It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem.”

Instead of creating a space intended to keep the homeless out, Whyte famously suggested that, “the best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else.” If citizens are provided with a beautiful, functional, social space, Whyte believes that they will be drawn in regardless of who else may share it.

This philosophy proved successful at Bryant Park, where the New York Times noted, “This park has not been gentrified beyond all reason; on a recent lunch hour, when office workers poured in from surrounding buildings, they shared benches with people who were quite obviously not rushing back upstairs to check their faxes. The poor do not appear to have been driven out of the park, but merely to have begun to share it. There was a generous ethnic mix and, in what experts say is a good indication of the public’s belief in the safety of a public open space, at least as many women as men.”

Bryant Park (Photo by Ken Bowen)


Modern Bryant Park

 “People want control of their environment; they do not want their environment to control them.” – William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

In addition to opening Bryant up to the street and creating clear sight lines, Whyte also suggested improvements that would increase the physical and social flexibility of the park. First, the great lawn was cleared and expanded. This central greenspace – which covers the roof of an underground library facility containing 3.5 million books -- affords Bryant Park limitless flexibility. Bryant Park also brought in lightweight, movable furniture. Based on his observations of hundreds of public squares, Whyte believed that citizens are more likely to utilize a space if they are in control of the environment, rather than controlled by it. This movable furniture, common in some of Europe’s great parks, is so light that (as BPRC President Dan Biederman brags) an elderly woman can move it with two fingers. And because of the park’s open, self-enforcing layout, the BPRC doesn’t have to worry about furniture being stolen or vandalized if they don’t put it away at night (on average, only one of the park’s 2,000 chairs goes missing each year). The BPRC also utilizes a temporary stage and a portable big-screen TV (provided by HBO).

On any given day, the park can be found hosting a movie night, staging a concert, offering a yoga class, putting on a fashion show, hosting a jazz or film festival, or even housing an ice skating rink. Because the core of the park is essentially a blank canvas, Bryant Park can rapidly and economically transition from one use to the next.

Bryant Park – Infinitely Flexible (Bryant Park.org)


Key to Bryant Park’s post-restoration success was the installation of numerous temporary and fixed amenities. For Bryant Park to be successful, the BPRC believed that in addition to being a clean, safe space overall, the park also needed to contain various smaller points of interest and utility. These spots would serve as gathering places within the gathering place. Some of these amenities include:

Food Kiosks - As part of Bryant’s restoration, permanent food kiosks were built to provide park visitors with concessions. In various corners of Bryant Park, you can buy coffee, frozen yogurt, crepes, sandwiches, hamburgers, soft drinks, and other easy-to-eat foods. Since 2005, most kiosks have been operated by New York Chef Tom Colicchio under his ‘Witchcraft label. Sandwiches from ‘Witchcraft can be bought directly in the park, or orders can be placed online and picked up at the window. ‘Witchcraft also runs coffee and frozen yogurt kiosks throughout the park. These kiosks are relatively inexpensive to maintain and provide a valuable source of revenue for Bryant Park.

‘Witchcraft Kiosk at Bryant Park (Bryant Park.org)

Landscaping - Shade trees and covered seating line the perimeter of Bryant Park, providing shelter from the sun. Elsewhere, beautiful softscaping (sponsored and maintained by multiple New York garden clubs) adds beauty while still preserving the sightlines between the sidewalk and interior. Park benches are built into the planters, combining beauty with utility.

Shades Trees Surround the Perimeter of Bryant Park/Planters and Benches (Bryant Park.org)

Public Art – Public art is on display throughout the year in Bryant Park. Works are rotated out regularly, giving visitors reason to keep coming back. Bryant’s permanent sculptures and fountain provide interesting secondary gathering places for visitors to congregate.

Fountain and Sculptures at Bryant Park (Bryant Park.org)

Technology & Productivity - Wi-Fi is provided at no charge to park guests, and in recent years, solar-powered charging stations have also been installed.

Solar Powered Charging Station (BryantPark.org)

Family Entertainment - A children’s carousel – Le Carrousel – provides amusement for families visiting the park. The New York Public Library also operates an outdoor reading room in the park, allowing guests to enjoy a hand-picked selection of rotating books without the need to present a library card.

Le Carrousel at Bryant Park (photo by Sydney Sadick)

Restaurants - Two popular restaurants border the park. The Bryant Park Grill offers upscale dining with rooftop seating overlooking the great lawn, while the more casual Bryant Park Café remains one of Midtown Manhattan’s most popular hotspots for happy hour.

Bryant Park Grill (Left); Bryant Park Café (Right) (Bryant Park.org)

Games - Various corners of Bryant Park contain ping pong tables, putting greens, and permanent chess and checker boards. In addition, over 35 board games can be rented from Bryant employees for use in the park. Visitors looking to make friends can take part in Wednesday Night Game Socials, where people are randomly paired to compete.

Bryant Park Games (Bryant Park.org)


Perhaps the most important amenity of all at Bryant is the park’s staff. Together, security, maintenance, and hospitality workers provide a deep psychological sense of safety and community. Days after Bryant’s initial restoration was complete, New York Magazine marveled, “It appears to be cleaner. No matter the time of day one goes for a stroll there, one always seems to come across people cleaning up the place… The police also seem to be vigilant. No one is allowed to lay over the steps. There is no harassment of the parkgoers.”

When the New York Times reviewed the park, architectural critic Paul Goldberger joked, “Bryant Park feels like it has been airlifted out of the West 40’s and dropped into some idyllic landscape far, far away. Security guards who smile and ‘Good morning’? Maintenance workers who pick up papers as soon as they fall to the ground? This is not the New York that I know.”

The constant presence of uniformed security and staff, coupled with the park’s open design, improved lighting, and prominently-displayed park rules creates a self-enforcing, self-policing environment that by its very nature encourages accountability and discourages deviant behavior. Even Dan Biederman, founder and President of the BPRC, can be seen regularly strolling through the park, greeting visitors, and picking up loose trash that his crew might have missed.

Bryant Park Security Officer (BryantPark.org)


Before a single physical change was made to Bryant Park, the BPRC began to program the park daily. Programming -- the regular hosting of diverse events and activities – gives citizens a reason to come to the park, and keeps the regulars coming back often. As the BPRC noted during their presentation to the city, “A crowded park is a healthy park.”

In addition to small concerts, lectures, exercises classes, and performances, Bryant Park hosts fashion shows, lunch time concerts by Julliard students, the New York Times young performer’s series, the JVC Jazz Festival, summer movies in the park, the HBO Film Festival, and more. These events vary daily, and a conscious effort is made to select events that will attract a wide variety of age groups and demographics.

Seasonal programming is also a staple of Bryant Park. From June to September, for example, Bryant’s Art Cart is on hand. Free drawing supplies are provided for adults (crayons for children), and local artists are on hand to give basic art lessons to visitors. During summer months, chess experts provide free lessons at one of the park’s permanent tables. And during the winter, Bryant Park is famous for hosting outdoor ice skating.

Ballet at Bryant Park (BryantPark.org)

Diverse Sources of Revenue

The Project for Public Spaces believes that in order for a public square to be successful, it must create and exploit diverse sources of revenue. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation has continuously risen to this challenge, drawing revenue from dozens of different places.

In addition to the money that Bryant Park has received in the past from the New York Parks Department (in recent years, Bryant accepts no city funding), the BPRC also raises money through vendor fees from kiosks, event and area sponsorships, and kickbacks from the owners of adjacent buildings and businesses who have seen a $3 billion increase in value since Bryant’s restoration. Fundraisers are held annually, and prominent New Yorkers donate generously to the park. Bryant can also be rented out for private events (with city permit). Though these events, particularly New York Fashion Week, often prove frustrating to park visitors and the BPRC (the city controls the fashion shows, which are the only events not free to the public), they play an important role in the park’s self-sustainability.

By keeping a close eye on their budget and capitalizing on diverse sources of revenue, the BPRC has created a space that is not only self-sustaining, but profitable. This profit allows BPRC to continuously reinvest in itself. As New York Magazine put it, “The money no longer goes into a giant city pot, where much it would disappear, often misappropriated for crazy projects or sometimes stolen.” Instead, extra revenue can be used to continuously enhance or upgrade the park, whether it be by hiring additional staff or through infrastructure improvement (Bryant now has a fully-attended, award winning public restroom).

When taken together, all of these factors – design, flexibility, amenities, staff, programming, and broad revenue generation – have combined to radically transform Bryant Park from the mugging capital of Manhattan into what is universally considered to be one of the finest urban parks in the world.

With the BPRC’s successes in mind, let’s now take a look at our own urban park, Hemming Plaza.

Hemming Park/Plaza – A Brief History

Early Hemming Park

First known as City Park in 1857 and then St. James Park in 1869, Hemming Park received its permanent name in 1899 in honor of Charles C. Hemming, a Civil War veteran who donated the confederate statue that has stood guard over the park for over a century.

For nearly a century, Hemming Park was the center of life in Jacksonville, peaking in the late 1950s and 1960s when the park was bordered by the city’s largest department stores. JC Penney, Woolworth’s, Furchgott’s, Ivey’s, and May Cohens all did big business nearby, while dignitaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy Jr, and Richard Nixon selected Hemming Park to host their most important speeches in Jacksonville.

Hemming, like Bryant Park, experienced rapid decline in the 1970s as the surrounding department stores began to close or relocate to the suburbs. Destructive birds soon descended on the park, and the city fought back by destroying Hemming’s trees. Hemming Park’s fatal blow came at the end of the 1970s when, as part of a failed 1971 Downtown Master Plan, the remaining green space was ripped out and the park was converted into a bricked pedestrian mall surrounded by a traffic loop. With the transformation complete, the city’s once grandest park was renamed Hemming Plaza.

When the last remaining department store closed in 1987 (May Cohen), the Times-Union practically wrote an obituary for Hemming, declaring that “the village green is deserted, abandoned to the homeless.” The down-and-out (seeking help at the nearby Sulzbacher Center, Clara White Mission and City Rescue Mission), career criminals (regularly arrested and then released four blocks from Hemming Plaza) and the mentally ill (now on the streets following 1980s mass deinstitutionalization) all converged on Hemming Plaza, essentially taking over the area. Since then, the park has experienced up to 100 reported incidents a year, ranging from violence, to gambling, to drug abuse, and more. Two years ago, a Channel 4 news van covering crime at Hemming had a brick thrown through the window and was almost set on fire with a photographer inside. Though Hemming has hosted the occasional special event in recent years, the plaza remains a rough block and is symbolic of why many avoid downtown Jacksonville.

Lyndon Johnson Speaks at Hemming Park

Applying the Bryant Park Philosphy to Other Urban Spaces

“There is nothing that we have done in Bryant Park that couldn’t be done in other city parks and that couldn’t be done with other city facilities.” – Daniel Biederman, President of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation

Though Bryant Park is at the center of one of the world’s busiest business districts, there is nothing particularly remarkable about its restoration and operation that hasn’t been or couldn’t be duplicated and scaled appropriately in other public spaces, including Hemming Plaza. BPRC President Dan Biederman has made a career of implementing similar improvements in cities such as Boston, Dallas, Newark, Pittsburg, and Buffalo. In most cases, he hasn’t needed to reinvent the wheel, but simply do the little things right.

Below are a few scenes from other urban parks throughout the nation that have enjoyed remarkable success by embracing a Bryant Park-like philosophy.

Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, as operated by the Detroit 300 Conservatory:

(Photo by the Detroit 300 Conservatory)

(Photo by Malena Fryar)

(Photo by the Detroit 300 Conservatory)

Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, as operated by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation

(Photo by Lauren Drewes Daniels)

(from UptownJazzDallas.com)

Houston’s Market Square Park, as operated by the
Downtown Redevelopment Authority

(Photo by Vicki Powers)

(Photo by Vicki Powers)

Boston’s Post Office Square, as operated by the
Garage at Post Office Square

(Photo via LandNotes.org)

Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza, as operated by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory
(Photos via CityParksBlog.org)

Applying the Bryant Park Philosophy to Hemming Plaza

Using the core tenets of Bryant Park’s restoration – design, flexibility, amenities, staffing, programming, and diverse sources of revenue – let’s look at some changes Friends of Hemming Park could incorporate to help Hemming reach its full potential.  Keeping in mind that my background is more in economics, statistics and marketing than art, I’ve also included some rough renders to show what an improved Hemming Park could look like. These designs are for visualization purposes only and can obviously be improved upon by an architect, urban planner, or artist.

Smart, Safe, Social Design

Hemming Plaza – Obstructed Sightlines, Foreboding Perimeter

William Whyte famously said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” With its prime location – bound by City Hall to the north, the Jacksonville main library to the east, a JTA Skyway station to the west, and the St. Johns River just blocks to the south -- it’s inconceivable that Hemming Plaza isn’t one of Jacksonville’s most vibrant and cherished urban spaces. Instead, Hemming is cold and dystopian, both by design and neglect. Broken pavers, dirty fountains, rusted seats, and fenced and exposed utilities dot the landscape of modern Hemming Plaza, lending the impression that few treasure the space or care about how it is used.

James Wilson and George Kelling introduced the seminal “Broken Windows Theory” in the 1960s in the pages of The Atlantic. The two sociologists posited that decay, vandalism, and urban disorder are intrinsically norm-setting, breeding further crime and trouble if left unchecked. In other words, if the city hasn’t respected and taken care of Hemming Plaza for the last several decades, it should come as no surprise that people eventually began using it as a restroom.

One of Friends of Hemming Park’s first stated goals is to thoroughly clean and pressure wash the plaza. This is a great start and immediately reverses the perception that the space isn’t cared for.

While cleaning the existing plaza, trees should also be trimmed and landscaping should be modified to whatever extent possible to begin opening up clearer sightlines across Hemming. Without clear sightlines, the perception of Hemming as an ominous, dangerous place is likely to persist. The Project for Public Spaces notes, “Perceptions of safety increase markedly if people can see ahead and around them, and if other people are visible. Clear sightlines allows park users the ability to verify the presence of persons which they might find threatening. Small neighborhood and downtown parks usually feel more comfortable if a considerable degree of openness is provided.”

Poor Sightlines at Modern Hemming Plaza

In addition to improving sightlines, Friends of Hemming Park should also capitalize on any short-term opportunities to make Hemming Plaza’s perimeter more open and inviting. William Whyte said in 1981 that, “Regardless of park size, safety begins at the perimeter. If the perimeter is inviting and people can observe pleasing activity from the street, they are more inclined to enter a park. An active and visible edge will encourage use and create a perimeter of surveillance for the park. An active edge can also increase park accessibility to user groups who may feel more vulnerable in the park interior and who are of lower mobility, such as women, children, older adults and people with disabilities.”

Hemming Plaza’s existing edge is the antithesis of what Whyte spoke of, with broken sightlines, parking meters, vehicles (parked both legally and illegally), erratically placed car stops, and elevated utilities.

Erratically Placed Vehicle Stops Directly Blocking Pedestrian Entrance Path

Hemming Plaza South Perimeter – Utilities Obstruct View into Park

Inside the plaza, any existing movable infrastructure (such as waste receptacles) should be placed smartly with the pedestrian in mind. Such a thing might seem trivial, but Daniel Biederman of the BPRC has been known to obsess for hours before moving a trash can two or three feet to in hopes of improving the social engineering at Bryant Park.

Hemming Plaza - Trash Receptacle in Pedestrian Walkway

To promote safety and accountability, new park rules should be drafted and prominently displayed near park entrances. Rules should be inviting and should make clear to park visitors that illegal activity or harassment of any kind will not be tolerated at Hemming Park.

Posted Rules Set Clear Expectations and Create Accountability

Long-Term Design

A Reimagined Hemming Park

Any long-term plan for Hemming Plaza should begin and end with transforming the obsolete concrete maze back into a green urban park. An open lawn and clear sight lines will not only make Hemming a more social, safe, self-enforcing space, but will also highlight one of her biggest advantages – the view. Standing in the center of the plaza, a century of historic and modern architecture surrounds you. Hemming might offer the best view in the entire city, with sweeping profiles of the St. James Building, Snyder Memorial Church, 11E, the Roosevelt, Bank of America and Wells Fargo Tower, the Main Library, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Laura Street Trio, the JEA Building, the Federal Courthouse, and more, all with the still-futuristic Skyway quietly zipping by in the background. As it currently stands, the fountains, trees, and confederate statue are the only ones who get to enjoy the plaza’s best views.

Friends of Hemming Park share this desire to one day restore Hemming Plaza to Hemming Park, as evidenced by the deliberate choice of name for their organization. Executive Director Vince Cavin tells me, “There’s absolutely a plan and vision to make the plaza into a park – a place that invites commingling with our friends, family, and community. We are looking at ways, further down the road, to create the type of greenscapes that contribute to an archetypal park. Part of the reason for calling it a park instead of a plaza comes from the intentional effort that we plan to put into the transformation of this important city square. It mobilizes the vision that we can create a modern urban park, similar in fashion and scope to Bryant Park, but with elements that are uniquely Jacksonville, such as the art, amenities, and food flavors of the south.”

Though there are thousands of ways that Hemming Plaza can be reimagined, a simple approach is probably the best. With its prime location and beautiful outer square, the design needs to simply move out of the way and allow the city around it to shine.

In this simple example, well-defined, lit entrances combine with a slight, non-obstructing elevation and prominent branding to give Hemming Park a sense of place. Clear sightlines, an inviting perimeter, uniformed workers, and prominently displayed park rules lead to an intrinsically self-enforcing space. Visitors know what is allowed and what isn’t, and they know that they are likely to be seen and asked to leave if they break the rules. Open space breeds accountability.

Front Entrance, Laura Street

Right Entrance, Duval Street

Left Entrance, Monroe Street

Branding Gives a Sense of Place

Google Earth Aerials:



If Hemming Plaza is to truly re-emerge as Jacksonville’s prominent gathering spot, its design needs to be flexible enough to accommodate dozens, if not hundreds, of different use cases. Unfortunately, modern Hemming Plaza is the antithesis of flexibility. The square is a labyrinth of oddly-placed concrete, fountains, benches, utility boxes, and trees, all with a giant statue planted directly in the center. The poor layout hurts overall cohesiveness of the plaza and presents a significant handicap in regards to programming.

With city funding (Hemming literally lies on the front steps of City Hall after all), and through private fundraising, Friends of Hemming Park should make planning and lobbying for a flexible redesign their first long-term goal. By incorporating an open, central greenspace – as numerous urban parks in the United States have done with great success in the last two decades – FHP would set the park up for future stability and success, all for a lower cost than Mayor Brown’s proposed demolition of the old county courthouse.

Lightweight, movable seating should be included in a redesign. Though this type of park furniture was first popularized in the United States at Bryant Park, it has since been utilized in dozens of other locations across the country. The Portland Tribune, when describing the turnaround that the notoriously unsafe Halladay Park has enjoyed with such seating, says, “Those unchained chairs are a reflection of [Bryant Park President] Biederman’s parks philosophy. Just watch one of his parks for a few minutes, he says. Older people move their chairs closer so they can hear one another better. Families sit close for private conversations that can’t be overheard. People like turning their chairs around so the sun doesn’t hit their faces, and moving them away from spots in the park in which they feel unsafe. All those people are feeling a measure of control over their personal space by being able to move their chairs around.”

Movable chairs not only provide flexibility and control for park visitors, but would allow FHP and park volunteers to quickly convert the park into a makeshift auditorium for performances or other programing. After events, park visitors could help return the seats to a designated area within the park.

A stage – either fixed or temporary – and perhaps a video screen are the last necessary components to maximize the park’s flexibility. Though nearby business owners and city officials have expressed concern that the area behind a stage would provide cover for illicit activity, any long-term redesign of Hemming Plaza absolutely needs to be conducted with visitor experience in mind, not outsmarting hypothetical criminals.

Hemming Park Stage

Lightweight, Movable Seating


Using lessons learned from Bryant Park, let’s look at several amenities that Hemming Park could incorporate.

Food - Hemming Plaza and its surrounding storefronts should be a primary lunchtime destination for downtown workers, library and museum patrons, FSCJ students, out-of-town visitors, and even the after-church crowd on Sunday. Instead, the city has been hesitant to maximize Hemming’s dining potential for fear of upsetting nearby businesses. At a 2012 ad-hoc City Council meeting called to address problems at Hemming, it was suggested that only non-competing food vendors be allowed to operate at Hemming Plaza. “Shaved iced carts” were the given example. With all due respect to those in attendance, downtown revitalization has never been accomplished with shaved ice.

Food truck activity should be encouraged throughout the week (not just on Thursday and Friday as it is currently), regardless of the type of cuisine served, and because Friends of Hemming Park will be providing the marketing and programming necessary to draw the lunch crowd to the park, food truck operators should eventually be required to provide a fair vendor fee to FHP as business increases.

 Food Trucks in Hemming Plaza (Jax Daily Record)

As food trucks are transitory by nature, permanent food kiosks should also be part of Hemming Park’s eventual redesign. Hemming should be a place that out-of-towners or locals can go to get a taste of Jacksonville, and the city’s best and brightest chefs should be actively recruited to operate these kiosks on a permanent or rotating basis. Local all-stars like Matthew Medure (Matthew’s, Restaurant Medure, M Shack) and Jonathan Insetta (Black Sheep, Restaurant Orsay, Chew) could be offered a low rent to get the ball rolling and then new tenets could perhaps be rotated in by season. M-Shack, Black Sheep, Taco Lu, Blue Bamboo, French Pantry, Sake House, Pattaya Thai, Fifth Element, Burrito Gallery, etc. Kiosks could even be designed to operate separately for breakfast and lunch, with morning tenets like the Donut Shoppe, Metro Diner, Secret Garden, or the Fox recruited to draw in the breakfast crowd. Food kiosks are relatively low risk due to the captive nature of downtown’s thousands of workers, and would likely prove a win-win for all involved. Office workers and downtown visitors get quality food choices in the heart of the city. Food vendors get the prestige of operating out of Hemming Park and are able to give patrons a simplified preview of what is offered in their full restaurants. And Friends of Hemming Park earn vendor fees that can be put toward park upgrades or operating expenses.

Nearby brick-and-mortar owners may be resistant at first, but in the long run (or even in the short run, as in Bryant Park’s case), their businesses will enjoy the massive advantages of bordering a popular, vibrant park.

Coffee & Newsstand – In the early 1900s, visionary park planner Frederick Law posited that an active, lively “outer park” is almost as important to a park’s success as the activity within. The Project for Public Spaces agrees, saying that “the streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it. Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls — that is the worst-case scenario for the outer square. Then imagine that same square situated next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children’s reading room has an outdoor space right on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square.”

Hemming Plaza’s existing outer square is a mixed bag. Though the plaza is surrounded by some of the most desirable tenets imaginable for a public space – City Hall, the main library, museums, restaurants, and a mass transit station – many of these tenets are weekday only with only one main entrance. Even during the week, several dead zones border the park, particularly in front of City Hall.

To fill in these gaps and help activate the sidewalk, a coffee kiosk or a newsstand could be installed. Library patrons have been without an adjacent café since Shelby’s coffeehouse closed in 2011, and downtown workers and visitors will always be in need of coffee, hot chocolate, newspapers, snacks, drinks, batteries, gum and other quick staples. A small coffee or newsstand would bring extra life and utility to this section of Hemming’s perimeter and would provide added incentive for pedestrians to come to the area.

Sample News & Snack Stand

Reading Room - One of the most popular amenities of Bryant Park is the “outdoor reading room.” This sectioned off area of the park, operated by the New York Public Library, offers an eclectic selection of books, rotated weekly, that are free to be read without a library card or identification. Hemming Plaza is in the perfect location to offer this simple, low-cost amenity. FHP should partner with the main branch of the Jacksonville Public Library to create such a space, either in the park itself or on the wide sidewalks in front of the library. Children’s books could be featured on the weekends for families, for example, best sellers and seasonal favorite could be displayed year-round, and motivational self-improvement books could be hand-picked with the help of Hemming’s social services outreach worker for the park’s down-and-out.

 Bryant Park’s Outdoor Reading Room (BryantPark.org)

Hemming Plaza’s Southeast Corner – A Potential Location for Outdoor Reading Room

Restaurants/Bars – Hemming Plaza is in the heart of Jacksonville’s central business district, and a short Skyway ride away from downtown’s Southbank. Each afternoon, tens of thousands of workers flood out of nearby office towers dreading the evening commute back home. Hemming Plaza should give these workers a reason to stick around. Friends of Hemming Park have discussed offering beer and wine in a sectioned-off area of the park. This is a great idea. Eventually, the long-defunct Snynder Memorial Church that anchors Hemming Plaza’s northwest corner could be converted into a bar with the help of the city and Spark District. The space earned raved reviews for its use as a live music venue during the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, and there’s no reason that it couldn’t become a permanent downtown hotspot. Charleston’s Mad River Bar is a great example of a similar conversion. Outdoor seating could help activate this currently-dead portion of the outer square, and patrons could be permitted to take alcohol into a roped off section of Hemming Park during restricted hours.

Synder Memorial Church

Mad River Bar – Charleston, South Carolina

Public Art – Public Art should be prominently featured in Hemming Plaza, and should be rotated out often to encourage repeat visits. Sculptures can be borrowed from JMOCA, and local artists can be commissioned to create work for the park (similar to the new Sculpture Walk at the Main Street pocket park). Additionally, local artists should be encouraged to work in Hemming Park, demonstrating their techniques and providing lessons to park visitors.

Games – Board games could provide a fun, comfortable, social amenity for park visitors at minimal cost to Friends of Hemming Park. Permanent chess and checkerboards can be installed, with game pieces rented from a volunteer game master. Various board games could be purchased by FHP and rented for use at any of Hemming’s tables. Portable ping-pong tables, volleyball or badminton nets, or other sporting equipment could be brought in on weekends, funded by sponsors in exchange for having their name prominently displayed on or near the equipment.

Landscaping – The Bryant Park model, with a central great lawn overlooking the city and shade trees and seating surrounding the perimeter, is the perfect fit for an eventual restoration of Hemming Park. Planters maintained and sponsored by Jacksonville’s finest garden clubs could add color to the park. Plants grow, and careful consideration should be given that the types of vegetation chosen will not eventually obstruct Hemming Park’s clear sightlines and perimeter.

Technology – Dependable WiFi should be offered free of charge to all of Hemming’s guests. FHP could consider requiring guests to register an email address before logging in. This would allow the group to build a mailing list to be used for the purpose of direct marketing or soliciting feedback from Hemming’s users. Upon login, guests could be redirected to a splash page promoting upcoming events at Hemming and, if technically possible, a paid Wi-Fi option with boosted speeds could be offered.


Great care should be taken to hire a staff that genuinely projects the warm, safe, welcoming atmosphere desired for a new, vibrant Hemming Plaza. Security and maintenance workers should be clearly identified by name and should make an effort to get to know the faces and names of regular Hemming Park visitors. Park visitors who do not follow posted rules should be escorted out without causing the type of scene that would reinforce Hemming’s negative image.

All staff, regardless of position, should be willing to get their hands dirty in order to keep the park clean and safe. Workers running kiosks, food trucks, or stands should be friendly and sincere, thank guests for visiting Hemming Park, and on certain days ask patrons if they would like to round up their total to help support Hemming Plaza.


When it comes to specific programming, friends of Hemming Park have no shortage of options. The Jaguars, Suns, Sharks, and Giants could hold game-day rallies. Alhambra Dinner Theater, Players by the Sea, San Marco Little Theater, Stage Aurora, and other companies throughout the city can stage short, stripped down previews of upcoming shows in Hemming Park. The Jacksonville Symphony can perform for special events, and smaller quartets could be invited to play at lunch time. Local dance academies and high schools such as Douglas Anderson can be tapped for talent. Stand-up comedians, open mic events, poetry readings, and historical or academic lectures can be booked. Jacksonville’s best yoga and zumba instructors could hold free weekend classes in the park. Movie nights could be held throughout the year. The options are nearly endless in a city of our size.

And because of the free publicity and prestige associated with performing in a vibrant, central location like Hemming Park, before long Friends of Hemming Park – like the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation – might find themselves with a line of people out the door wanting to perform in the park.

During the week, a focus should be put on smaller lunch-time and early evening entertainment. Thousands of workers are already in the area and simply need a little nudge to wander over into the park. On weekends, more extravagant “destination” entertainment can be programmed in order to draw visitors into the downtown core.

Seasonal programming should also be an important staple of Hemming Park. Examples might include a New Year’s celebration in January, floral exhibits in spring, a farmers market in the summer, Jaguars-themed events leading up to the start of the football season, a pumpkin patch in October, etc. Seasonal movies can also be shown in the park (beach movies in the summer, scary movies in October, holiday movies in the winter).

Jaguars Logo Painted Mid-Lawn at Hemming Park

In the winter, Jacksonville is one of the only major Florida cities that doesn’t offer outdoor ice skating. Even our much smaller neighbor, St. Augustine, hosts ice skating at its amphitheater. An outdoor ice skating rink, perhaps sponsored by a major local business (like the Jaguars), would give Hemming Park an attraction unique to the city, and would instantly make the park a must-visit annual destination for local families.

Outdoor Ice Skating at St. Augustine Ampitheater

Ice Skating at Hemming Park:

Equally important to programming Hemming Park is creating an awareness of that programming. Regardless of how great the performances or events that FHP book for the park are, without proper marketing and promotion, no one will ever know that they are taking place. In addition to the previously noted suggestions and general targeted and mass marketing campaigns, an inexpensive outdoor LED Ticker could be installed at Hemming Park, perhaps below the front face of the Skyway Station. The display could advertise upcoming events, relay important local news, or promote other upcoming events in the greater downtown area.

FHP should seek to build relationships and synergy with downtown’s other major businesses and destinations. For example, FHP could run co-promotions with the Jacksonville Suns. Pre-game events could be held at Hemming Park, with those in attendance receiving exclusive coupons or offers good at the Baseball Grounds that evening. Suns ticket holders could, in turn, receive vouchers good for a free board game rental or a discounted drink at Hemming Park. Mutually beneficial relationships and promotions could be built with the Jaguars, the Giants, the Sharks, the MOSH, the Times-Union Performing Arts Center, the Landing, the Florida Theater, the bars along the Elbow, JMOCA, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and countless others. Hemming is in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, and there’s no reason that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be the place to go before or after major downtown events.

Diverse Sources of Revenue

Friends of Hemming Park were given an 18-month contract, with no guarantee of additional funding beyond that. With no time to waste, FHP should immediately begin seeking out and exploiting every possible source of revenue possible. Turning around the existing park isn’t going to be easy, and the quicker the group begins to build revenue streams, the more rapidly Hemming can be improved upon and transformed.

Just a few ways that Friends of Hemming Park might consider monetizing the park now and in the future include:

• Offer paid sponsorship of Hemming’s temporary or permanent amenities. For example, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation allows businesses and visitors to sponsor the park’s movable furniture. For $150, you can have your name placed on a placard attached to one of the park’s lightweight chairs.

• Give park visitors the opportunity to round up any purchases made within Hemming to the next dollar, with proceeds going toward the maintenance and improvement of Hemming Park. Card readers can also be configured to ask buyers if they would like to add $1, $3, or $5 onto their purchase price to benefit Hemming.

• Charge site fees to host public events, such as trade shows, expos, job fairs, etc.

• Host private events, such as weddings and corporate events, to the fullest extent possible without significantly affecting public enjoyment of the park or violating city code.

• Hold seasonal fundraisers or special member events for the specific purpose of raising money for Hemming Park.

• Collect vendor fees from food kiosks, food trucks, stands, and other commercial entities doing business within the park.

• Solicit voluntary, fair contributions from nearby businesses and building owners who directly benefit from the restoration of Hemming Park and the security and maintenance provided by FHP. Otherwise, solicit the city of Jacksonville to create a Business Improvement District in the vicinity of Hemming Plaza.

In Closing

Though there are a thousand ways that Hemming Park can be tweaked or redesigned, by doing the little things properly and focusing on the core principals discussed – smart safe social design, flexibility, amenities, staff, programming, and diverse revenue sources – Hemming, like Bryant Park before it, has its best opportunity to finally reclaim its rightful position as Jacksonville’s premier urban space

The Landing might get more attention, but it is this guest writer’s humble opinion that Hemming is the key to downtown’s revitalization. 150 years of history point to the fact that how goes Hemming Park, so goes downtown Jacksonville. A vibrant, safe Hemming could not only radically transform public opinion of our city’s core, but could also catalyze nearby redevelopment. Skyway ridership will increase, surrounding property values and occupancy rates will rise, and even the library will see heavier use.

It won’t be easy for Friends of Hemming Park to reverse the decades of damage done to Hemming’s image, but if they succeed in creating the safe, self-sustaining central space that Jacksonville deserves, the rewards will be immeasurable.

Article by Ken Bowen. Contact Ken at KenBowen242@gmail.com

Ken Bowen works in civil engineering and is the author of Big League City! 100 Years of Football in Jacksonville (http://amzn.to/1sylELp). Ken will be speaking in Hemming Plaza this fall about Jacksonville’s football history.

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2014-oct-hemming-plaza-vs-nycs-bryant-park-a-tale-of-two-parks

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