While most of the Downtown attention has been focused on Jacksonville’s riverfront, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral has been quietly working on its own redevelopment initiative to make the environs around the church a vibrant, walkable, multigenerational residential community.
It’s an opportunity for private investors to invigorate an overlooked part of the Downtown core with tax-generating residential and retail developments.
It will need at least a little help from the city.
The vision is modeled on the medieval cathedral, which was the center of village life, the source of education, art and worship.
It’s also the answer to a problem that the Cathedral helped create.
In the 1960s, the core city was in serious decline as people moved to the suburbs, a crisis that eventually led to the consolidation of Jacksonville and Duval County in 1968.
“People were leaving the core, but the Cathedral felt called to stay,” said the Rev. Kate Moorehead, dean of the Cathedral. “So we surrounded ourselves with ministries.”
Federal funding for urban renewal was available, and before it dried up the Cathedral built three high-rises for retirees and a nursing home, establishing one of the city’s first nonprofits, the Cathedral Foundation, to manage them. More than 600 people live in the high-rises, now managed by Aging True, formed in 2011 by the merger of the Cathedral Foundation and Urban Jacksonville.
“When I came seven years ago, we realized that we had inadvertently done ‘toxic charity,’” Moorehead said. “We had created urban blight by creating all these nonprofits to minister to the poor.”
So for five years they discussed and prayed about what they should do next. They kept coming back to the idea of the medieval cathedral.
“We started thinking, what if we had a vision to create a neighborhood,” Moorehead said. “Not to displace the poor or discontinue ministries, but to get people to move back in with us, into the gritty exciting life of urban core.”
Moorehead wants to build a community of people who want to live, work and play Downtown but who are also comfortable with diversity, including the poor and elderly. The goal is not gentrification but ministry through a supportive community.
So the congregation set up Cathedral District-Jax, a nonprofit with the goal of being a catalyst for development in the 33 blocks around the church known to city planners as the Cathedral District.
The project director of Cathedral District-Jax is Ginny Myrick, a former City Council member with expertise in business development and government relations. She will help brand and market opportunities in the district.
“We’ve been likened to a preservation group, but we’re the exact opposite,” Myrick said. “We’re about changing our neighborhood.”
And that means creating an identity and a sense of place.
A HIGHWAY RUNS THROUGH IT
But where to begin.
Moorehead and Myrick enlisted the support of the district’s four other churches: First Presbyterian, First Methodist, Immaculate Conception Catholic and Historic Mount Zion AME. They also reached out to area businesses and the multitude of nonprofits, many of which provide services to the homeless and low-income residents in the area.
Last year, the Cathedral commissioned an Urban Land Institute (ULI) study of the area bordered on the north by State Street, on the east by Hogans Creek, on the south by Adams Street and on the west by Main Street.
Armed with ULI’s 34 recommendations, it hired Torti Gallas + Partners of Washington to develop a master plan in partnership with Genesis Partners, a Jacksonville urban planning firm. The plan was unveiled in August.
An analysis of the 33-block area concluded that the Cathedral District is a great place to live — if you’re a car.
More than half of the property in the district is devoted to parking. That and a lack of green space gives the impression that many of the surrounding buildings are vacant. They’re not. Occupancy is quite high, said Erik Aulestia of Torti Gallas.
The district also is a maze of one-way streets, which make the area difficult to navigate. And many of the streets are designed to move traffic quickly with rapid-cycle stoplights and wide lanes. This encourages motorists to speed through the area without giving the neighborhood — or pedestrians — a second thought.
Conversations with stakeholders in the district yielded a host of ideas for what they would like to see happen in the district. What emerged was the idea of an ecumenical village with the five churches at its core and with leafy residential streets and strong education, arts and retail components.
The vision statement: “The Cathedral District is a leafy Downtown historic neighborhood where you can live work, learn, play, serve and pray together with your neighbors.”
But how to make that happen?
“One of the impediments is that people can’t envision it being different,” Aulestia said.
AN ECUMENICAL VILLAGE
Torti Gallas came up with recommendations for the Cathedral District that include brick-and-mortar projects, changes in traffic patterns and a flock of angels.
The plan calls for a core of residential between Ashley and Duval streets. To preserve the character of the neighborhood, Aulestia recommended playing off the architecture in the area, especially the double-porch style of architecture found in the older single-family homes on the eastern edge of the district. Tree/grass medians along the street would create a neighborhood feel.
The most obvious first project is the redevelopment of the Community Connections property east of the Cathedral. The property has deed restrictions that need to be changed, and a portion of it is in the process of being declared an historic landmark by the city, Myrick said. But Chase Properties is interested in building residential units that could be ready in two years.
A vacant lot to the northwest of the Cathedral also is suited to residential, possibly mirroring the adjacent 51-unit Parks at the Cathedral townhomes built on land donated by the Cathedral. It would surprise many people to learn that the modern townhomes include internal parking, a swimming pool and a park-like courtyard and are individually owned or fully rented at market rates.
A second component is a mixed-use gateway on North Market Street with street-level retail topped with two or three stories of residential and an open street plan with public art and green space. The gateway would link the Cathedral District to Springfield and be appealing to employees at Florida State College at Jacksonville and UF Health.
“With market-rate residential, you could have critical mass that changes the complete profile of the neighborhood,” Myrick said. “And retail follows rooftops.”
The district already has a Harvey’s supermarket and a Family Dollar within walking distance and several fast-food restaurants. Additional businesses like salons, dry cleaners and a pharmacy are needed to support a residential neighborhood.
But a school is what would really make the Cathedral District a place to call home. The Cathedral already operates a preschool in the district with a waiting list of 100. Many of the parents work Downtown.
A University of North Florida survey of employees at major Downtown companies, commissioned by Cathedral District-Jax, found parents of 7,000 children who said they would be willing to send their children to a Downtown school.
Myrick is in conversations with several charter school companies about starting a K-8 school of the arts that would be a feeder to nearby LaVilla School of the Arts. It could open as soon as next year.
One site that is being considered is a four-story building owned by First Presbyterian Church that was designed in the 1960s to be a school, but never opened because Riverside Presbyterian Day School opened at the same time.
The building would need a sprinkler system and some other upgrades, but it already has a cafeteria and auditorium, Myrick said. The playground could be on the roof.
The flock of angels would descend in the form of public art in the parks that are badly needed in the district. Currently, there is a pocket park at Duval and Monroe streets that could be enlarged and landscaped. Aulestia also suggested putting in a large park in the northeast corner of the district against the overpass.
Wherever the parks go, he said, they should have an identity — targeted to young children, dogs or activities like chess or table tennis.
A DIET FOR DOWNTOWN
And that brings the conversation back to cars. If you want a residential neighborhood with people walking their dogs and kids playing, you don’t want a highway running through it, Aulestia said. That means putting Downtown on a “road diet.”
Reconfiguring the streets to make them two-way and restriping them to make the lanes narrower slows down drivers, Aulestia said. It’s being done on Riverside Avenue and Forest Street in Brooklyn and on Riverplace Boulevard on the Southbank. It also will allow for bike lanes and make sidewalks safer for pedestrians. Urban planner Jeff Speck has a lot to say about that in a story on walkability on page 40.
It means that the decisions about Downtown transportation need to focus on people instead of vehicles, people who prefer to travel on foot, by bicycle, trolley or Skyway.
Safe passage needs to be provided by maintaining sidewalks, slowing down traffic signals and maybe getting creative with intersections and crosswalks. Painting designs on the pavement not only can brighten up the area, especially at gateway points but also make drivers pay attention, Aulestia said.
Street art can also help create a sense of place and link the Cathedral District to the Sports complex and Elbow District to the south and east, the business district to the west and Springfield and Hogans Creek to the north.
Parking is the tricky — and expensive — part of the puzzle.
The way parking lots are scattered around the district is a poor use of real estate, but building more residential will increase the demand for parking, at least in the short-term, Aulestia said. In the long term, demand for parking might actually decline because fewer people will be driving personal cars, opting instead of ride-for-hire services like Uber or public transportation.
But parking doesn’t come cheap. Aulestia said a surface parking lot costs $3,500 a space while a parking structure costs $30,000 a space. Part of the solution might be to add a layer of parking to existing lots by using modular parking decks, which are less expensive and can be easily removed.
RESTORING THE BALANCE
Neither Myrick nor Moorehead expects any of this to happen quickly, but they expect it to happen.
“This is a large, multi-year project which I believe has hit the right time in the history of our city,” Myrick said. “There is momentum, and this is a first-time initiative being driven by faith-based stakeholders. It will take several years to bear fruit, and I’ve always been a big fan of ripe fruit.”
To make it happen, the city needs to step up and address the traffic and infrastructure piece of the equation, as well as provide incentives for the catalytic projects.
Aundra Wallace, chief executive officer of the Downtown Investment Authority, said the “road diet” for Downtown “is very realistic.” However, funding must be identified to address the one-way-to-two-way street conversions and restriping.
“The overall development strategy is very sound and practical,” Wallace said. “The development of the Community Connections location can serve as a catalytic development project provided it’s financeable. The charter school concept is a component that would help residential development in the urban core.”
As a nonprofit, Cathedral District-Jax is in a position to attract money from foundations, and there are several church funds dedicated to urban renewal, Myrick said.
It needs to happen, Moorehead said, to restore the balance to Downtown.
“To really minister to the poor, you have to live with them,” the dean said. “That’s what we’re understanding now. In an urban desert, they’re all by themselves. People come in from the suburbs, do ministry and then leave. That leaves them alone without any real understanding and without all their needs met. By keeping the ministries but encouraging people to move back in, we’re doing a much better job of serving the poor.”
It’s a new style of ministry — and urban renewal — that Moorehead thinks will resonate with millennials, who are interested in living in a diverse neighborhood.
“The inclination of many people is to run away to gated communities or resorts,” Moorehead said. “It’s scary to live and work among people who are different, but it’s a richer way of life.”
Redeveloping the Cathedral District is not just about constructing housing and retail. It’s about building community, too, and that requires a safe environment where people can start building relationships and trust, she said.
Aulestia said he has worked on a lot of plans to help revitalize struggling cities. He thinks the Cathedral District is different. “You have the commitment of a few individuals to see it through, to take it every step of the way,” he said.
“I love this city,” Moorehead said. “It’s an extraordinary canvas for Downtown development.”
LILLA ROSS was a reporter and editor for The Florida Times-Union for more than 30 years and now is a freelance writer. She lives in San Marco.