Plans in progress to make Southbank more livable

Plans in progress to make Southbank more livable

Bringing ‘neighborhood’ back into the equation

For 50 years Jacksonville’s Southbank has been a place people drive through on their way to somewhere else. In a meeting Sept. 24, consultants hired by the city’s Downtown Investment Authority sought feedback from the public on how they can transform Riverplace Boulevard into a street that would help make the area a “place people drive to.”

Full funding has been set aside to reconfigure the lanes of Riverplace Boulevard so it can become more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, said DIA Executive Director Aundra Wallace,

a Southbank resident, as he introduced the consultants during the meeting held at the Lexington Hotel. Working on the plan will be Nicholas Mousa of JBC Planning and Engineering, Pete Sechler of Community Solutions of Orlando, Ruth Perry of GAI Consultants and Lara Diettrich of Diettrich Planning. Mousa, who heads up the consulting team, is the son of city administrator Sam Mousa.

Conceptual planning for the project should be complete by December, said Sechler. A detailed design should be approved by the DIA in January 2016 and put out for bids.  Construction is expected to begin in early 2017 and should take nine months to complete, he said.

During the meeting Sechler treated Southbank residents and others from the public to a visual history of the area.

RoadDiet_01After the presentation, participants were asked to work in groups to outline on paper how they would configure Riverplace Boulevard using certain street elements such as narrow travel lanes, parallel and angled parking, shared, buffered and protected bike lanes, and sidewalks of differing widths. After discussing the plans table by table, the consultants collected the drawings to use as they formulate their final design.

During his talk, Sechler said the Southbank has changed dramatically since the 1920s. Back then, the Southbank had a vibrant waterfront with a fine network of blocks that comprised a working-class neighborhood. Within its borders were grocery stores, parks, churches, pubs, and industry. In short, residents lived in proximity to their employment.

Things began to change in the 1960s when the thriving waterfront transitioned into an area of single-use office buildings. At this time, the prominent urban planning idea was to encourage workers to drive to work from the suburbs and a highway system was developed to get people in and out of the city as quickly as possible, he said, noting the “model was to evacuate the downtown at 5 p.m.”

In the early 1990s, the Southbank still had some JEA industry, a couple of office sites, remnants of the working-class neighborhood and the beginnings of an expanding medical district, but the model was still single-use office buildings and employees that drive to the city daily, he said. “We were untangling our cities under the guise of progress,” Sechler said, noting the city consciously dismantled the waterfront with its “close-in” residential neighborhoods and untangled it to go to a suburban model, turning the Southbank into a land of parking lots.

“When we look at this area, we see remnants of different periods of time,” he said.

Through the Riverplace Boulevard “road diet” project, the consultants hope to jumpstart a return to a more sustainable model where residents will be drawn to amenities and activities they can’t find in the suburbs.

With the waterfront, medical district, which offers high, low and medium-wage jobs, proximity to the historic neighborhood of San Marco, and the advent of Healthy Town, the Southbank will soon have all the elements to attract residents looking for restaurants, biking and walking, authenticity, and offices with the “cool” factor, he said.

“We want to re-appropriate the asphalt for something other than moving cars,” Sechler said. “Riverplace Boulevard is the first step in the process of how the entire area will evolve.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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