New coalition advocates for public green space along river

A new coalition of nonprofits – Riverfront Parks Now – is advocating for a network of public green space and active parks along the St. Johns River in Downtown as a way to improve public access and create resiliency.

Nancy Powell, executive director of Scenic Jacksonville, said other cities have done it successfully and found that it creates recreation, economic development and resiliency.

Powell noted that Louisville, Kentucky, a mid-size city with a stadium, has riverfront parks covering 85 acres and is planning to add 22 more acres. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, another mid-size city, has two stadiums and 32 acres of riverfront parks, she said.

In addition to Scenic Jacksonville, the coalition includes the Late Bloomers Garden Club, The Garden Club of Jacksonville, Greenscape, and St. Johns Riverkeeper. They have been making presentations all over the city to talk up the idea. 

 “We’re getting a lot of grassroots support,” Powell said. “It seems to have hit a chord. It’s a real opportunity we shouldn’t ignore.”

Riverfront parks are not a new idea, but what’s different this time is the wake-up call created by Hurricane Irma in 2017 that caused significant flooding Downtown, Powell said.

“We realized the vulnerability of Downtown. That changed people’s thinking about how close to build to the edge of the river,” Powell said. “Green space can provide buffers as sea levels rise.”

The city is taking a hard look at resiliency, and Powell said she hopes that green space is part of the solution. 

“We see the most successful cities pushing development across the road. That would mean more green space between Bay Street and the river. We’re not saying there’s not a restaurant or bike rentals or cultural activities,” Powell said. “But it’s a riverfront for all.” 

Riverfront Parks Now would like the city to develop a master plan for parks and green space Downtown that takes in the whole riverfront and is in conversation with the Downtown Investment Authority.

“We need to prioritize the public use of the riverfront instead of making development the priority,” said Jimmy Orth, executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper. 

“That doesn’t mean there can’t be development. Parks attract both people and business, and are a buffer against sea-level rise, Louisville has seen a $40 million annual economic impact from its parks,” Orth said.

Lori Boyer, CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, said she would like to see a master plan that takes in all the riverfront on South and North Banks and would consider parks including their design and integrating them programmatically with connected access points.

“We have a lot of master plans for Downtown that include parks,” Boyer said. 

Boyer said the challenge of master plans is getting beyond the conceptual phase. 

“What I’m hoping for is a more refined plan that allows us to implement those concepts piece by piece.”

But Boyer said she doesn’t see the need to stop the current development projects to wait for a comprehensive plan.  

“Do we stop what we’re doing to wait for this? No. But there could be simultaneous efforts to refine plans to make more connections,” Boyer said.

When the DIA evaluates development proposal, it scores each project on a variety of criteria including open space and public access to the river.

For instance, Spandrel Development Partners LLC, which plans a multiuse development for the old City Hall/Courthouse property now known as Ford on Bay, included green space and river access in its proposal along Courthouse Drive and near the future marina, as well as creating an additional right of way from Bay Street to the river, Boyer said.

“Every 250 feet or so, you need to make a view corridor and access to water,” Boyer said. “You put buildings perpendicular to the water, not parallel.”

Opportunities for green space on the South Bank are limited, with Friendship Fountain Park at one end of the Riverwalk and a proposed four acres of green space at The District at the other end.

“The South Bank is an example of what happens when you don’t have a plan,” Powell said. “It becomes opportunistic. Once it’s private, it’s private. It’s not coming back. We’re focusing our efforts on the North Bank.” 

The City owns a lot of land along the North Bank, including the underused Metropolitan Park, the Shipyards, the former Landing and Ford on Bay. The City also has plans to use the green space at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts as an outdoor multimedia venue.

In addition, the Berkman II and the old Times-Union building are expected to be demolished and redeveloped. 

Shad Khan is interested in developing Metropolitan Park and possibly the Shipyards, which could be the future home of MOSH. But the City cannot sell the park land because of a provision in a federal grant that it used to create the park in 1981. The City has requested that the National Park Service allow it to swap the Metropolitan land for the Shipyards land. 

But Powell sees problems with developing a city park on land that is contaminated from years of industrial use.

“This is a good time to step back and rethink how we approach Downtown revitalization,” Powell said. “We need to invest in ourselves, in the public. We know that investment follows people,” Powell said. “You have to do it right. It’s not just a bunch of grass. You have to design the park.” 

Powell said the plan for Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park in LaVilla is a good example of what can be done with a park. Nationally renowned landscape architect Walter Hood has incorporated the history of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson into the design of the park.

“It’s a small space but they hired a top designer, and he did something creative and thoughtful,” Powell said. “That’s the kind of project we feel if we could do something on a larger scale could impact all of Jacksonville.”

Riverfront Parks Now would like to see a river conservancy, a nonprofit that partners with the City to implement a master plan for the riverfront downtown that gives the public a voice in how the riverfront is used.

Boyer would like to see one, too, something along the lines of Groundwork that champions the Emerald Trail.

“You want an organization that is focused on it, that raises money and attention. They keep the drum beating,” Boyer said. “Having an organization like that for the riverfront would be awesome.”

By Lilla Ross
Resident community News

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