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

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.

Published January 21, 2015 in Cities - MetroJacksonville.com

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.

Historic Preservation

Tampa's historic flagship Maas Brothers department store was demolished in 2006, in anticipation of a condo development. Like the sites of many demolished buildings in downtown Jacksonville, the condo project failed to move forward and Tampa has been left with another surface parking lot.

Neither city is the creme de creme when it comes to historic preservation. Both have detonated blocks of impressive building stock in hopes of future development, only to end up with surface parking lots as a result. This situation doesn't get any worse than Tampa's decision to demolish the Maas Brothers department store on Franklin Street in 2006 or Jacksonville blowing up the Rhodes Furniture building in 2002. Nevertheless, both do have good examples of historic preservation. In Jacksonville, these include the preservation of the St. James Building, 11 East and Carling Hotel buildings.  In Tampa, good examples include the Tampa City Hall and two boutique hotels in the Floridian Hotel and US Courthouse buildings. Both serve as great examples of what the Laura Trio buildings in Jacksonville can become if the City of Jacksonville and Southeast Group can work together to bring in Courtyard by Marriott. For Tampa, Jacksonville's preserved Kress Building should provide hope for what Tampa's vacant Kress Building can become.


The Floridian Hotel

Kress Building

LeMeridien Tampa


The renovation of the former Kress Building in 2011.

Now City Hall, the St. James Building was the 9th largest department store in the country when it opened as Cohen Brothers Department Store in 1912.

The Carling Hotel and Lynch (11 E) Buildings are now residential apartment structures.


Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan's 312-foot superyacht Kismet along the Northbank Riverwalk.

Jacksonville's Southbank and Northbank Riverwalks have been two of downtown's major attractions since the early 1980s. While not built as originally envisioned, future plans include extending  both riverwalks into adjacent neighborhoods and connecting them with a shared use path along Interstate 95's Fuller Warren Bridge. For years, Tampa's access to the Hillsborough River has been somewhat limited along the downtown Riverfront. Now under construction, Tampa will soon have a 1.8 mile continuous riverwalk on one side of the the Hillsborough River. Future dreams call for a second riverwalk on the westbank of the Hillsborough River. If Tampa needs any examples on the benefit of duel riverwalks in the heart of the city, look no further than downtown Jacksonville.


Hillsborough River and riverwalk construction from the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge.

Riverwalk at Curtis Hixon Park


Public Parks & Open Space

Henry Plant Park on the westbank of Tampa's Hillsborough River.

The heart of both city's downtowns are dominated with public access to their respective riverfronts. Jacksonville's Northbank Riverwalk features the Jacksonville Landing and the Times Union Performing Arts Center. Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is the centerpiece of Tampa's Riverwalk. Anchored by the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children's Museum, the park features a few things that are no where to be found in downtown Jacksonville. These features include a great lawn, interactive fountains, a children's playground and a dog park. Even on days with no events planned, these features attract local residents. If Jacksonville is serious about turning its downtown around, public spaces that include interactive fountains, children's playgrounds, dog parks, etc. are a must.

Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park

Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is a centralized public space designed to accommodate a large number of activities.

Jacksonville's Northbank Riverwalk

The closest thing Jacksonville's Northbank has in comparison to Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is the Northbank Riverwalk between the CSX Building and Jacksonville Landing. However, outside of the Jacksonville Landing, land that could be green space is underutilized and overlooked.

Building Bike Infrastructure


Bike share

Wayfaring Signage

Bike Lanes

A shared use path was added as a part of a project to convert Meridian Street into a gateway thoroughfare into Tampa's Channel District.


Outside of the Northbank Riverwalk, bike lanes on Riverside Avenue and Forest Street in Brooklyn are the only bike facilities in downtown Jacksonville.

Mass Transit

Many transit advocates would love to see the return of passenger rail to downtown's historic Jacksonville Terminal. Significantly smaller, Amtrak still provides passenger rail service to Tampa's Union Station.

Downtown Jacksonville's passenger rail terminal hasn't seen a passenger train since 1974 when it was abandoned for an Amshack a few miles northwest of downtown. On the other hand, Tampa's preserved downtown train station, home to one daily Amtrak train, served 77,781 passengers in 2012. One of the easiest ways to stimulate additional traffic in downtown Jacksonville is to return the Jacksonville Terminal back to its natural use. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is in the process of adding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to the city's streets. If Jaxsons really want to know what Jacksonville is getting and if it will spur transit oriented development, check out Tampa's MetroRapid. MetroRapid was launched by Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit (HART) on May 28, 2013. The first BRT line runs from downtown Tampa to New Tampa and features limited stops, modern shelters, and traffic signal priority (TSP). Transit ridership along the route is up but it hasn't spurred TOD. On the other hand, Tampa's TECO Streetcar has stimulated over $2 billion in TOD along its 2.7-mile route but has been a flop in terms of ridership. In Jacksonville, ridership on the struggling 2.5-mile Skyway Express jumped 61% after system went fare free in 2012. Long the red-headed stepchild of JTA's transit network, the JTA is now working to extend the Skyway to rapidly developing Brooklyn and coordinate the fixed transit system with BRT and local bus routes. By better integrating the Skyway into the local transit network, average weekday ridership is up to 4,100. The TECO Trolley averaged 600 daily weekday boardings in the second quarter of 2014. HART should consider studying a few of JTA's recent moves with the Skyway to turn around its TECO Streetcar ridership issues.


Tampa's Union Station was completed in 1912.

The 2.7-mile TECO Streetcar system averages 600 daily weekday boardings.

Despite ridership struggles, the TECO Streetcar has helped stimulate infill Transit Oriented Development (TOD) around its stations.

The TECO Streetcar connects downtown Tampa and the Channel District with Ybor City, a major entertainment and historic district, roughly a mile NW of downtown.


In preparation of JTA's First Coast Flyer BRT system, dedicated bus lanes are being added to Jefferson and Broad Street.

The JTA Skyway is now free to ride and ridership has spiked as a result.

The JTA Skyway

Reclaiming the Heart of the City

A portion of Franklin Avenue still closed to automobile traffic.

In 1973, Tampa's leaders converted a five block stretch of Franklin Street into a pedestrian mall. In 1984, Jacksonville's leaders did something similar by closing surrounding streets to pave over Hemming Park. In both cases, the public developments were key components of strategies to enhance downtown retail. Instead, they became the final nails in both downtown's retail coffins. 28 years later, Tampa reopened Franklin Street to automobile traffic and retail, dining and entertainment uses are slowly reappearing.  Recently, a private group has taken over efforts to bring the Hemming Park area back to life. Tampa has experienced some success in attracting storefront retail along Franklin Street in the vicinity of Lykes Gaslight Park. The Friends of Hemming appear to being a good job to activating Hemming Park. Perhaps both cities can lean on each other when it comes to activating the heart of their downtowns around historic public squares and retail districts?

Tampa's Franklin Street

Jacksonville's Hemming Park


The Encore development in Tampa's Central Park neighborhood.

After his mother's death in 1945, Ray Charles lived in Jacksonville's LaVilla, playing the piano for bands at the Ritz Theatre, earning $4 a night. By 1947, he was living in a hotel on Tampa's Central Avenue and performing at the nearby Blue Room nightclub. Charles left Florida for good in 1948. Both Jacksonville's LaVilla and Tampa's Central Park neighborhoods would be largely gone by the 21st century. Much of Tampa's old Central Avenue neighborhood is being developed into a project called Encore. Funded with federal stimulus dollars, the infill development is the result of a Bank of America/Tampa Housing Authority partnership to transform a former public housing complex into a 28-acre mixed-use, mixed-income community combining the neighborhood's culturally rich history and the best principles of high density urban living. While this concept is too late for Jacksonville's long lost LaVilla, the opportunity still exists with Brooklyn, another historic African-American Jacksonville district currently in the midst of gentrification.

Tampa's Encore

Jacksonville's Brooklyn

Convention Center Districts

The Tampa Convention Center on the right.

Jacksonville's Prime Osborn Convention Center opened in 1986, featuring 78,500 square feet of exhibition space. Tampa's Convention Center opened in 1990 and features 600,000 square feet of exhibition space. However, the similarities stop there. A 27-story Marriott, a 20-story Embassy Suites, a 12-story Westin, the and several restaurants are within walking distance of Tampa's riverfront convention center. Jacksonville's struggling Prime Osborn sits alone in isolation with the nearest restaurant and hotel being over a mile away. Tampa has successfully created a compact district of complementing tourism related activity in the vicinity of its convention center. This is the type of environment many believe can be instantly created in Jacksonville's Northbank if the convention center were relocated next door to the Hyatt, along the St. Johns River and within walking distance of the Elbow district and the Jacksonville Landing.


Embassy Suites is across the street from the Tampa Convention Center.

The Florida Aquarium (background) and Channelside (right). Channelside is an entertainment complex that is similar in size and scale of the Jacksonville Landing.

A Carnival Cruise Ship at the Tampa Port Authority's cruise ship terminal near a TECO Streetcar stop and Channelside.


The Prime Osborn Convention Center sits in total isolation today. Buildings on the surrounding blocks were demolished during the 1990s.

Public Education

Downtown Tampa's Sam Rampello Downtown Partnership K-8 School

The most vibrant urban environments are those that cater to all walks and ages of life. If you want people to seriously consider moving into a downtown environment, investments must be made to attract more than single millennials and empty nesters.

With that in mind, high quality public schools are a must. In Tampa, an attempt to address this situation has been made with the establishment of the Sam Rampello Downtown Partnership Kindergarten through 8th grade school.

Founded by the Tampa Downtown Partnership in partnership with the School District of Hillsborough County and the State of Florida, this public school, with an A FCAT grade, was designed for students whose parents work or live in downtown Tampa.

In Jacksonville, the relationship between public schools and attracting residents to downtown seems like an afterthought or something not really thought about at all. If one resides on the Southbank, then they are zoned to Hendricks Elementary (A). If in Brooklyn, south of Forest Street it's Central Riverside Elementary(B). If in Brooklyn north of Forest Street, it's S.P. Livingston (D). If living on the Northbank, west of Main Street, your child is headed to John E. Ford (C). If in the Northbank, east of Main Street, it's R.L. Brown (D), which is a few miles northeast of downtown.

LaVilla School of the Arts, a magnet middle school, is the only public school in downtown Jacksonville.

In other words, it's the Southbank or paying for private school if your a family with young children who prefer living in an urban environment. No wonder the Southbank saw more success in attracting infill housing during the 2000 boom than the Northbank! Jacksonville, it's time to coordinate public education with efforts to attract downtown residents. Downtown Tampa's Rampello K-8 Magnet School may be a decent model worth exploring.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-jan-whos-downtown-is-ahead-jacksonvilles-or-tampas

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