Residents debate mayor’s plan to demolish The Landing

Residents debate mayor’s plan to demolish The Landing
The Landing as seen from the Southbank

Not everyone is on board with Mayor Lenny Curry’s idea to have the City of Jacksonville buy back and demolish The Jacksonville Landing in favor of building a riverfront park. In fact, many are alarmed with the speed at which the Mayor’s plan is being pushed through City Hall.

On March 26, after much discussion, the City Council approved, 15-1, Ordinance 2019-134, proposed by the Mayor, to allocate $18 million to buy out Jacksonville Landing Investments LLC’s long-term lease. Councilman Danny Becton’s last-minute floor amendment to approve $18 million, paying $15 million to developer Toney Sleiman right away but delaying demolition until later, was soundly rejected by the Council. In addition to Sleiman’s payment, the final deal includes $1.5 million to terminate leases and relocate tenants and $1.5 million to demolish and clear the site. Demolition could begin in six months, said Downtown Investment Authority Interim CEO Brian Hughes.

If razed, it will be the second city landmark to be demolished this year. In January, the City tore down the former City Hall annex and old courthouse on East Bay Street, scrapping plans to build a convention center on the site and leaving another vacant parcel in the heart of the city with no clear plan for the property.

Juliette Vaughn of San Marco and other area residents are angry at the prospect of losing The Landing. Vaughn signed and shared an online petition requesting City Councilmembers think twice before signing off on its demolition. As of March 28, over 1,200 residents have signed Vaughn’s petition. “As the City grants approval to demolish buildings at such an alarming rate with no clear vision of future development, it erases its history and possibilities one-by-one,” it reads.

“I just don’t see this as being a step forward for Downtown. Most retail has been run out of The Landing, but why? Don’t we want retail in Downtown?” Vaughn asked, noting she loved shopping there during its heyday. “We have an outstanding park system. Just in that one area alone we have Metropolitan Park, the Riverwalk, Riverside Park, and Friendship Fountain. I don’t think we need another Metropolitan Park scenario. An aquarium would be cool but revamping and giving the buildings current use another shot will be the most cost-effective.”

Marjorie Broward of San Jose shares similar concerns. She wrote a guest editorial for the Times-Union suggesting the site be repurposed into an arts entertainment center.

“Serious consideration should be given to repurposing The Landing. There is steel in the buildings, so I don’t believe it is in imminent danger of ‘rotting,’ but obviously that needs to be determined by an unbiased engineer,” she said. “I do not favor a big waterfront park because a park, of itself, would not draw crowds of people downtown. Some green space on the river, perhaps, but not the whole area. We already have too many under-utilized or neglected parks. It could become a picnic spot for the homeless and a trashy area of plastic,” she said. “Jacksonville has a plethora of talented artists, architects, and planners. The City needs to ask for their input so whatever happens in that space is a creative, innovated use. We do not need another new 19th century addition to Downtown.

“Whether repurposed or demolished and rebuilt, I believe The Landing is a viable space for an arts center. There could be art galleries, craft galleries, and stores to sell artists’ work as well as a small hall for chamber groups and recitals, and an outdoor stage for under-the-stars concerts, opera, Shakespearean plays or ballet. Coffee shops, tea shops and restaurants could be included. It could be a true mixed-use area focusing only on arts-related ventures, to be determined by members of the Cultural Council,” she said.

Broward’s daughter, Kris Barnes, shared her mother’s views. “I oppose the City’s plan to demolish The Landing without giving the taxpayers time to discuss the options available, and I don’t think another waterfront park is the answer. The goal should be to engage the local citizenry and visitors. If I visit a city, I do not look for a park on the waterfront but rather an area that has an activity I can enjoy. We already have community members who are terrified to come downtown because of isolated incidents that garner the headlines.

“If the area became a large open park, the City would have to attempt to keep the homeless out,” she continued. “If The Landing is taken down, whatever replaces it must be accessible to everyone in Duval County and tourists. It needs to embrace the St. Johns River as it does now, with pedestrians walking the Riverwalk and a wonderful outdoor event space overlooking the river. It’s not a wise use of our money to demolish The Landing. Better to spruce it up and find a public-private partnership to make it successful.”

Rendering of the riverfront park the City wants to build on The Landing site
Rendering of the riverfront park the City wants to build on The Landing site

Southbank resident Howard Taylor, who frequently does his banking at The Landing, also does not favor a park on the site. “I disagree with demolishing The Landing to make it green space,” he said. “I don’t think a park will attract families, particularly those who work downtown and live in the suburbs or other counties. There will be a vagrant problem. Undesirable people will go there and make the park undesirable.”

Taylor said, at a minimum, the iconic orange roof should be saved. “The Landing could be converted into a farmer’s market to support downtown residences. Plans were submitted to convert the space to a multi-use facility. They should be updated and considered. Sleiman should have been allowed to work his plan. City politics did not allow for that, and the taxpayers have to pay the price created by elected officials.”

Barnes agreed that the City should have worked with Sleiman. “Taxpayers should have input before City officials reach a decision. Not repairing the docks after hurricanes, and never coming to an agreement about parking was vindictive by the City. It put another nail in the coffin,” she said. “There has been no desire to see The Landing be successful by the City. It was a true ‘windfall’ for Mr. Sleiman the way things have worked out.

“We as taxpayers should have a chance to bring forward ideas before the City decides so quickly to get rid of something,” Barnes continued. The proverb, ‘one man’s trash is another’s treasure’ can apply to many buildings City officials have brought down. Thank heavens other countries do not have ‘disposable’ beliefs or there would be no history of the world to visit.” 

Like Vaughn, Avondale’s Steve Williams, CEO of Harbinger Signs, is against razing The Landing. “I sent a notice to the Mayor’s office of ‘PLEASE DO NOT TEAR IT DOWN,’” he said. “The response I got was a wet blanket and an off-putting response of ‘whatever we do there, people will enjoy it for years to come,’ which is I am sure what we heard when we built this originally. Frustrating,” he said.

Candidate for City Council At-Large Group 1 Lisa King said her concern about the project relates to a “lack of transparency on future plans” for The Landing.

“It has long been rumored that the City will give Metro Park to Shad Khan for inclusion in the redevelopment of the Shipyard’s property,” said the former Riverside resident. “Metro Park was purchased with assistance from the federal government so if it is conveyed to a private developer, the Feds will expect the City to replace it with another downtown waterfront park. Would that park be The Landing? For downtown to reach critical mass, we need a walkable density. The Laura Street corridor is reaching that critical mass, so it makes little sense to go backwards in density. I think a more logical plan would be to redevelop The Landing for mixed-use development. We have 4,500 housing units downtown, with 10,000 being the goal. Again, for the retail investment to follow this, density needs to be walkable. Lot J and the Shipyards are too far to walk, and the people movers planned along Bay Street by the JTA are years away. I believe we are better served to prioritize our investment on Laura Street and build out from there.”

Richard Shieldhouse, a transportation and tourism consultant who lives in Avondale, favors Mayor Curry’s plan to build a park, but questions whether businesses should be relocated Lot J. “I don’t know the details of Khan’s plans, and maybe nobody does. His plans for the amphitheater certainly changed from what was publicly disclosed. My fear is that Khan and his pals in City Hall are going to build a completely new downtown in Lot J and adjacent parcels leaving the existing downtown to become even less desirable for anyone but the homeless,” he said.

Williams also believes it would be a mistake to relocate Landing businesses down toward Lot J. “Someone recently said they should put a Publix at The Landing and I love the idea. You could maybe fold a movie theater in there or expand Mavericks, which is already successful and a great venue for music in our city,” he said, adding that “the structure is fine, the plan was good, and it just needs to be maintained and filled up with a mix of local venders and high-quality national anchor tenants. A food hall perhaps, and just take care of it, instead of letting it sit in ruin.”

A big part of The Landing’s problem was its landlord, Toney Sleiman, Williams said. “It used to be the place to go but started going downhill after 9/11, quite honestly. Then when it went to its current ownership, they seemed focused on events and drink sales even though every creative in town met with them and tried to make something happen. It is clear they were aiming to ‘not make anything happen.’”

Shieldhouse agreed that when Sleiman’s firm leased The Landing property, he exacerbated the problem, but said that The Landing was doomed to fail from the beginning. The “festival marketplace concept is only proven to work in places with large tourist flows,” such as Boston, New York, Miami and Baltimore,” he said.

“When Sleiman took it over, I predicted it would only get worse, and it did,” he said. “Sleiman runs strip malls. If the inventor of the festival market place and expert in them couldn’t make it work in Jacksonville, why would a strip-mall operator have any success?” he continued. “Downtown Baltimore was not a tourist draw until Harborplace was built in the late 1970s. Harborplace stimulated other nearby draws – the convention center, the aquarium, Oriole’s Park, where 81 games are played every year in contrast to the seven played at Jacksonville’s stadium. Four decades have proven that Baltimore was an anomaly. These things don’t work. Compare this to another 20th-century innovation for improving business districts, the pedestrian mall. These have worked in a few places, like Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, but dozens of others have been removed.”

Shieldhouse agrees with the Mayor’s plan to install a large riverfront park on the site, even though he concedes it might become a haven for homeless. “If the City will quickly replace The Landing with a beautiful and well-maintained park, I’m in favor of it. There is little public space along the river, which arguably is the City’s principal asset. A lovely park would provide a public gathering place to substitute for The Landing, which has been a private meeting space for public events. A fantastic park, if it’s well-designed and maintained, it can attract people from all over the city and the country,” he said, granting that, if not well maintained, the homeless may become a fixture in it at a detriment to Downtown, discouraging people to visit. “With JEA potentially moving east, the daytime working population downtown will be further reduced, increasing the perception of downtown as a refuge for the homeless.”

While Williams strongly believes The Landing should be revitalized by a development firm like Jamestown Properties, which built Chelsea Market in New York and Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Shieldhouse said he would vote against refurbishing the site, in part because of the way it is designed. “As many have pointed out, the design turns its back on the city. In my opinion, it’s not an exceptional building. Further, retaining the buildings will only sustain memories of colossal failure,” he said.

As an alternative, if the idea of building a park is rejected for some reason, Shieldhouse suggests a worthy alternative might be leveling the site and building a mixed-use development with bars, restaurants, grocers, service businesses on the ground floors with residences above. “I would look at what some creative developers, such as Federal Realty, have done building new urban spaces almost from scratch and get involved with them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Williams is “completely opposed” to turning The Landing site into a park. “The plan is not in cement to turn The Landing into a park if they tear it down. That was a conversation starter put out by the mayor’s office to get input and opinion. I would be against a park on the property because it would be a haven for homeless as well as another place we would have to maintain. Let’s be honest, we only maintain ‘some’ of our parks. There are so many still in horrible condition, such as the Emerald Necklace. Can’t we fix what we have that is broken before we create something else that takes dollars away from parks that are in bad repair?”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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