Activity has replaced potential throughout Downtown Jacksonville.
Don’t believe it? Well, read on. We may not convince eternal pessimist John Q. Cynic of the progress, but the evidence is as clear as the sunlight shining on the St. Johns River.
Cranes are popping up while ground-level improvements are taking place along the riverfront. Meanwhile, a series of urban trails looks both exciting and affordable.
From Brooklyn to TIAA Bank Field, from State Street to the Southbank, Downtown doesn’t look too big anymore. It looks like a boom.
Besides activity, developers with proven track records are planning expansions. This is important because development Downtown is not simple or easy. It takes skill.
But Vestcor knows how to finance and build affordable housing, Hallmark Partners knows how to develop market-rate housing and the St. John’s Cathedral has already developed housing in the Cathedral District.
Now outside investors are coming to Jacksonville, as evidenced by the Molasky Group from Las Vegas, the developers of the Barnett Bank building.
There are announcements for seven new hotels: one at Berkman II, the Ambassador Hotel, a Marriott Residence Inn in Brooklyn, a Marriott AC Hotel in the District, a Marriott Courtyard at the Laura Street Trio, the Hotel Indigo at Bay and Laura streets and a Hyatt Place at Water and Hogan streets.
One key, as always, is the St. Johns River and its two Downtown tributaries, Hogans Creek and McCoys Creek. The river can be seen as a divider or as a showpiece.
The waterfront activation plans led by City Council Member Lori Boyer are already moving to reality with funds for McCoys Creek in the city’s budget for the next three years.
One cool example of activating the riverfront is the modernistic playground on the Northbank near the corkscrew ramp over the FEC railroad tracks. Kids and adults can be seen relaxing and exercising in the shade there.
The St. Johns River Taxi is an indicator of Downtown’s rebirth. The river taxi offers an enjoyable way to travel the Southbank and Northbank. Its twilight cruises are spectacular. And as Downtown activities increase, the taxi’s services and hours are bound to increase.
Let’s take a tour of six Downtown neighborhoods:
BROOKLYN DISTRICT: Hot, hot hot
What Hallmark Partners started with its market-rate apartments at 220 Riverside — John Q. Cynic said nobody would pay the rents — has turned into a hot spot in Brooklyn. And another market-rate apartment building is on the way next door.
A Fresh Market is exactly the sort of grocery store that Downtown has lacked. Retail is still following.
Park Street property is being snatched up. Drab industrial buildings are being transformed into chic retail and service spots like the new doggie daycare, Bark at Park. Also, 15,000 square feet of retail space is planned for Riverside Avenue and Leila Street.
Grand plans for Brooklyn include the restoration of McCoys Creek. Money has been budgeted by the city of Jacksonville to turn the creek into something special in the long-neglected neighborhood.
The creek empties into the St. Johns River under the Times-Union building, which is a classic case of shining your light in a barrel. The newspaper staff will be moving from the building in early 2019, and the hope is that the Morris family owners will open the creek to the sky as part of its redevelopment.
Meanwhile, a Marriott Residence Inn is on the way at the corner of Magnolia and Forest streets. Initial complaints about its suburban design eventually were resolved.
Fears of gentrification from the residents of Brooklyn should be eased by plans by Vestcor for affordable and workplace housing, the Lofts at Brooklyn.
Groundwork Jacksonville’s exciting urban trail project is expected to begin in Brooklyn. Park Street at the viaduct would be split in two with one side devoted to pedestrians and bicyclists. That urban trail would extend north for about 2 miles.
There also are big plans to use a “road diet” in Brooklyn, which means narrowing roads while providing more space for bicycles and pedestrians.
At the far end of Brooklyn will be a separate pedestrian bridge as part of the Fuller Warren Bridge expansion project. It will connect Northbank and Southbank and offer stunning views of the St. Johns.
STADIUM DISTRICT: Big plans
Any mention of the stadium district has to include Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan and his development group, Iguana Investments.
Khan’s public-private partnerships with the city have turned the football stadium, now TIAA Bank Field, into one of the most enjoyable venues in the National Football League. The huge scoreboard, the pool and the dog park are part of the fan-friendly scene.
In the works is an entertainment zone on Lot J that will use the expertise of the Cordish Companies, a group that has set up such services in other NFL and major league baseball cities.
Once the Hart Bridge ramp is removed, the Shipyards development will have a riverfront view. And in answer to John Q. Cynic, taking down the ramp actually will improve traffic, especially to the Talleyrand docks as well as into Downtown.
Intuition Ale Works and Manifest Distilling are already in the nearby Doro district, and there is talk of more retail and entertainment venues.
CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT: Momentum on steroids
Many of the vacant buildings Downtown are owned by city government and located in the Central Business District. While much remains to be done, there already is meaningful activity.
VyStar has purchased the SunTrust Tower and will be moving its offices there.
The Hanania auto group is moving its corporate offices to the Dyal-Upchurch Building on Bay Street.
Renovation work is underway at the Barnett Bank building and Laura Street Trio.
FSCJ’s apartments and its student-run café are open on Monroe Street.
Across the street from City Hall, the Jones Bros. furniture store and an old Western Union building next door will have apartments, retail and office space. The Jones Bros. building has been vacant for about 30 years, which shows how long residents have become used to seeing empty spaces Downtown.
A Hyatt Place hotel at Water and Hogan streets could have its groundbreaking in early 2019. That’s more progress.
On the Northbank, a series of eyesores are about to be removed. The former city hall and courthouse are being demolished.
Plans of more than $100 million are in the works for Berkman II, which will include a hotel, parking garage, a family entertainment center and a 200-foot ferris wheel. The USS Adams, a naval museum and tourist attraction, is planned to be docked near the Berkman II.
The Jacksonville Landing remains an eyesore, but hope springs eternal that the Sleiman family operators and city officials can get out of court and arrange a buyout so the land becomes something like Fisherman’s Wharf or a central park.
Meanwhile, Downtown is being spruced up with art on such mundane items as bicycle racks and concrete columns holding up the Skyway. A second phase of urban art will brighten the Elbow area around Bay Street.
Nevertheless, more urgency is needed on the many small, vacant buildings Downtown.
Before we get too excited about the future, let’s pay tribute to the early arrivals Downtown, like the law offices of Farah & Farah, the Police and Fire Pension Fund, the Bedell Firm in the former Carnegie library, the Jessie Ball duPont building and Vestcor’s market-rate apartments at the Carling and 11 E. Forsyth.
CATHEDRAL DISTRICT: Transformation underway
Thanks to the St. John’s Cathedral, we know that plans can turn into reality for both senior housing and affordable housing. The Cathedral District currently includes 600 senior apartments, 51 market-rate townhomes, a nursing home, a grocery store and a few offices.
Plans call for 120 more apartments, a K-8 charter school and public art to brand the 36-block area.
The idea is to build housing for a mix of incomes to create a diverse community and avoid gentrification.
Dean Kate Moorehead is on record as saying that the Episcopal Church plans to provide a mix of housing options, not just focused on low-income residents.
Vestcor has the development rights to the large piece of property once run by Community Connections, formerly the YWCA. And Vestcor has a track record of success.
The Cathedral District will be a self-contained community of different income levels.
SOUTHBANK: The boom continues
The District has the funding and the approval to move forward at the former Southside Generating Station site next to the Duval County School Board building. The development is slated to include apartments, townhomes and condos, an office building and retail, such as a boutique grocer and a drug store.
Developers Peter Rummell and Michael Munz say their plans are receiving worldwide notice. Their emphasis on healthy living is replacing golf courses as the new development attractions. In fact, a university research team will follow residents to document how they are doing.
The development will be open to the public with an extension of the Southbank Riverwalk that even wraps around the back of the buildings.
Nearby, next to the School Board building, are new apartments called the Broadstone River House with 263 units set to open early next year.
A few blocks away, on Home Street, is SoBa, a 147-unit apartment development well underway with first resident move-ins expected in summer 2019, according to the developer’s website, Catalyst Development Partners.
As for the School Board moving from its riverfront administration building, that will require a good purchase price to make it affordable. The building is paid for. So far, School Board members and administrators have taken a passive approach.
The Museum of Science and History is quietly planning for a dramatic redevelopment on its Southbank location, including expansion and renovation of its building and opening it to the St. Johns River Park around Friendship Fountain.
Meanwhile, there will be a new apartment tower along the Southbank on a slice of land just west of the Acosta Bridge. Controversy and legal action over the height of the building have held back plans, but it looks like a compromise has been worked out for a tower of 85 feet, not 150 feet. City Council approved a tax rebate for the tower.
Road improvements along Prudential Drive should make the Southbank more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists. Now if only more parking can be provided.
Once the Southbank Riverwalk is extended by 2020 in front of Baptist Medical Center, connecting to the new pedestrian bridge along the Fuller Warren, Downtown will have a spectacular riverfront trail.
That trail can serve as a link to other urban trails being designed by Groundwork Jacksonville.
This list of Downtown developments has one feature in common. Most of them are well on their way with either funding in order or construction underway. The cranes are proof.
So John Q. Cynic, all the critics of Downtown development can turn their negativity on something else. Downtown is back!
LAVILLA DISTRICT: History comes alive
Placemaking is a big trend in America’s downtowns. When it comes to LaVilla, the place is already here; we just need to rediscover it.
Once a victim of urban renewal, LaVilla is on the rebound with hundreds of apartment units for the working class developed by Vestcor.
Though many of its historic buildings have been lost, enough remain — Old Stanton is an example — that LaVilla should be a center of authentic Jacksonville history. The Ritz is an anchor.
Transportation is big in LaVilla with a modernistic new design for the Greyhound station across the street from the new JTA Regional Transportation Center now under construction.
Brewster Hospital, which once treated African-Americans during the days of segregation, is being turned into a headquarters for the North Florida Land Trust along with space marking its history in training nurses.
The former Lee & Cates building at 905 W. Forest St. will be turned into living units with possibly an upscale convenience store on the ground floor. The developer proposes unique educational activities there, which could even include beekeeping.
And the urban trail from Groundwork Jacksonville that begins on Park Street will run through LaVilla.
LaVilla is no longer a desolate place but a neighborhood with a future.