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Downtown of the future

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For some, the current push for Downtown revitalization is just an echo from the past

Ryan Geddes

Staff Writer

A challenging design concept to restructure the Downtown business district into an exciting place in which to shop, work or simply visit is under consideration by business, civic and political leaders here."

Although it sounds eerily similar to the frequent utterances of Jacksonville's present Downtown business, civic and political leaders, that statement was made in The Florida Times-Union nearly 35 years ago in an article about a "challenging new concept" -- Downtown redevelopment.

The revitalization of Downtown is a hot issue in modern Jacksonville, with the support of the mayoral administration and a solid cadre of business leaders determined to create 10,000 housing units in the urban core. But the city has been trying to revive its lagging Downtown for decades, with mixed results.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jacksonville's urban area and those of major cities nationwide went through dramatic shifts as suburbanization pushed shoppers, residents and businesses out to the edges of the city map. The massive indoor shopping malls that followed made competition for urban businesses in all but the most well established downtowns difficult, as comparatively high rent, traffic and crime or perceptions of crime Downtown became obstacles for residents living near the convenient malls.

Jacksonville city leaders, like many of their counterparts across the country, saw the plight of Downtown as a serious issue and brought in a steady stream of consultants.

In some cases, the resulting proposals were ambitious and futuristic.

In the late 1960s, the Jacksonville-Duval Area Planning Board was acutely interested in hovercraft as a way to move people and vehicles between the banks of the St. Johns River Downtown. A committee set up to study the use of air- cushioned vehicles in urban environments suggested the city consider paying for the service.

"If private enterprise is unwilling to establish such a system, it might be necessary to establish it as a public utility owned by the city and financed on a self-liquidated bond issue," read one committee report.

But other proposals in later decades echo ideas fashionable today, including the creation of housing Downtown as a way to encourage economic revitalization in the area.

In 1970, a Baltimore-based planning consultancy, citing successes in Atlanta and Minneapolis, proposed a cluster of "in-town high-rise" apartment complexes bounded by concentric circles of one-way streets in Jacksonville's central business district.

The proposal also called for "upper-level walkways," an issue that Downtown boosters still spar over.

That year also saw the first serious discussion about establishing a Downtown Development Authority to oversee the redevelopment process, including the doling out of public money to private companies for Downtown projects.

But it would be three decades before Jacksonville followed in the footsteps of many other major cities and created a business improvement district funded by an ad valorem tax on Downtown properties.

Downtown Vision Inc. was established in 2000 to create "an extraordinary, vibrant neighborhood where people come to live, work and play," according to the group's 2003 annual report.

"I do think things are cyclical," said Terry Lorince, executive director of Downtown Vision. "I think it also comes with the ages, particularly where the Baby Boomers are right now. As they approach retirement, they are going to do something different and everyone is wondering what that is."

Downtown Vision is banking on the idea that aging adults, fed up with strip malls and suburban sprawl, will opt for urban living after their nests are empty.

The Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Vision and Mayor John Peyton are all behind the housing push.

"We've spent the last 10 years revitalizing our Downtown," said Peyton in a recent article co-authored by Lorince and CSX Corp. executive Trip Stanley for an urban design magazine. "We have the anchors and the infrastructure in place. Our goal moving forward is to connect the pieces and create a truly memorable experience for the people who live, play and visit Downtown Jacksonville."

Although Downtown revitalization has been an issue in Jacksonville for decades, many point to the River City Renaissance program as the first large-scale effort to put plans into motion.

The program, approved by voter referendum in 1993, set aside $238 million for riverfront development, the relocation of City Hall to Hemming Plaza, the reconstruction of The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, the transformation of the Gator Bowl football stadium into NFL-ready Alltel Stadium, the redevelopment of the historic LaVilla neighborhood and the restoration of the Florida Theatre.

Seven years later, the City Council adopted the Downtown Master Plan to address parking, Downtown identity, public safety and to further open up the St. Johns River to public access.

Jack Diamond, principal partner at Rink Reynolds Diamond Fisher Wilson P.A., came to Jacksonville in 1970, the same year the city was beginning to hash out early plans for what was then called "urban renewal." He has been involved in Downtown revitalization efforts ever since.

"The reality is, the most important thing is the leadership having a vision of where you're going so it allows things to happen within a framework that creates a synergy," Diamond said.

In the 1980s, the city seemed to peg its hopes for a Downtown renaissance on large projects that would serve as catalysts for change. Although such landmark developments as Metropolitan Park and The Jacksonville Landing signified a move toward celebrating the riverfront, they did not, in themselves, spur Downtown development.

"That's one of the differences now -- it's not going to be one big project that will make Downtown," Lorince said. "It's shifted to, how do we strategically plan three or four projects that will give us more bang for our buck?"

Another difference, she said, is the city's unprecedented commitment to the creation of residential units in the urban core. The Downtown Development Authority recently withdrew a request for proposals for a block of historic Downtown buildings that called for a mixed-use office, retail and residential complex. The new request will call solely for housing.

But Downtown proponents have a skeptical population to win over, as long-time residents remember not only the area's dismal recent past but also its vibrant history.

"There are people who are very proud of their avoidance of Downtown," Lorince said. "They say, 'I haven't been Downtown in 20 or 30 years.' That group is going to be very hard to attract. Those people remember this town when it was booming in the 1960s and are just thinking, 'Well, you won't get me down there.' Our challenge is to create a product that is unique to the region."

Downtown enthusiasts say the focus on housing, the Downtown Master Plan, a renewed interest in urban living and strong political buy-in differentiate today's revitalization efforts from those of decades past.

"Jacksonville has within its grasp the chance to make its Downtown one of the most stunning areas in the United States," said Mel Brdlik, a promoter of Jacksonville's Downtown revitalization plan, in a 1971 issue of Jacksonville Magazine, then published by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. "This downtown will defy the gloomy predictions that downtowns are a dying institution."

Downtown proponents today say Jacksonville's grasp on that chance is firmer now than ever before, but they say success will be measured by small steps rather than monumental breakthroughs.

"I think cities are a continuum where each generation has a responsibility to do what it can to continue retail, commercial and all types of development," Diamond said. "We all have a responsibility to do our part."

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I'd say that downtown Jacksonville is a success story. It also seems like that 10,000 figure is not out of the question either. All these new towers goign up onlong the Southbank are going to change Jacksonville's skyline dramatically, as well as effect the commercial aspect of Downtown.

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