Mayor and local leaders focus on revitalizing downtown and urban core

Talks about Downtown Jacksonville revitalization may seem like a case of déjà vu, but community and business leaders are tackling the issue with energy and vision.

Mayor Lenny Curry and six Jacksonville business owners and local leaders held meetings in February and March to discuss ways to improve the urban core. The working group is led by John Rood, founder and chairman of The Vestcor Companies that redeveloped The Carling and 11 East Forsyth into apartment buildings and has recently completed four new projects Downtown.

“After a 2018 Chamber of Commerce trip to Denver, I came back really excited about revitalizing empty buildings in Jacksonville the way that Denver had successfully done,” Rood said. Talks with the Mayor at the end of 2020 resulted in a working group that is soliciting public input on how to make downtown more livable and workable in the next two years.

Beautification, maintenance of public owned property, lighting, riverfront parks, regularly scheduled activities, resolving the homeless issue, transportation, and bike/street safety have been discussed. Activities suggested included festive events such as laser and fireworks shows; food trucks; a permanent, large farmer’s market; and regular outdoor concerts.

Working group members, in addition to Rood and Mayor Curry, include Gary Norcross, FIS corporate chief of staff; Nat Ford, JTA CEO; Aundra Wallace, president of JAXUSA Partnership; Jack Hanania, Hanania Automotive Group founder & CEO; and Ed Burr, founder & CEO of GreenPoint Holdings LLC.

Their input, as well as recommendations from other Downtown stakeholders and from surveys conducted by employers with downtown employees, such as FIS, Vystar and Vestcor, will be compiled into a prioritized list of actionable items that can be accomplished in two years.

Developer Alex Sifakis, president, JWB Real Estate Capital, owns Sweet Pete’s, the two buildings just north of it and the Porter House Mansion. JWB also built 18 apartments made from shipping containers in the Cathedral District.

“Young people want to live in an urban, walkable environment so having a vibrant downtown is critical to the future success of business,” Sifakis said.

Lori Boyer, CEO of the City’s Downtown Investment Authority, is staff person to the working group. The DIA is in the midst of the five-year update of the Business Investment Strategy and Community Redevelopment Area Plans for the Northbank and Southbank.

“The DIA plans focus on the vision for Downtown and larger strategies and incentives, as opposed to the types of issues being considered by the working group,” said Jordan Elsbury. “For example, homelessness must be addressed from a City-wide rather than just a Downtown perspective, because our goal is not simply to move people from one neighborhood to another, but to provide more lasting and meaningful solutions.”

“DIA’s focus on achieving a critical mass of residents is so important, because that mass helps support retail and makes the Downtown market self-sustaining,” Elsbury said. “Public parks, trails and civic attractions along with retail create energy and vitality.”

“There are about 5,000 apartments in Downtown Jacksonville currently. The goal is to get the number to 10,000 for enough base for restaurants, grocery stores and other services that people need to live downtown,” Rood said.

Downtown revitalization is a challenge for Jacksonville, according to Rood, because of several factors, including that it is a consolidated city with large undeveloped parcels of land that are less expensive to develop, rental rates for offices and apartments are lower than most other cities, and construction costs are rising.

Boyer lists 10 formal revitalization plans that have been developed since the early 90s, beginning with former mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance program in 1993. Austin’s plan is often referred to as the first large-scale effort to revitalize Downtown.

Former mayor John Delaney’s Growth Management Task Force Recommendations plan in 1997 was followed by John Peyton’s Brooklyn Neighborhood Strategy Plan 2004; River Dance: Putting the River in River City, a 2005 study by now-defunct Jacksonville Community Council Inc.; the 2007 Downtown Action Plan; and Celebrating the River: A Plan for Downtown Jacksonville issued in 2009.

Alvin Brown, during his tenure as mayor, produced the Downtown Business and Investment Plan that incorporated Northbank and Southbank community redevelopment plans and a business investment strategy adopted by City Council in 2015.

The plan that evolves from the current working group will be the fourth one under Mayor Lenny Curry’s leadership.

“The McCoys Creek project, The Emerald Train, extensions of the Riverwalk, addition of boat docks and marinas, enhancement of riverfront parks and public spaces, restoration of two-way streets, and redevelopment of the SS Generating Station Site and, likely, the Shipyards as examples of progress that has been built upon prior plans and recommendations,” said Boyer.

“My first conversations about downtown started in the seventies with Mayor Hans Tanzler,” said Mike Tolbert, corporate and political consultant, who managed re-election campaigns for Tanzler and former mayor Jake Godbold and was a member of both former mayors’ staffs. “Tanzler shut off 77 outfalls that carried millions of gallons of raw sewage straight into the St. Johns River in Downtown.”

“One of the biggest barriers to downtown progress is the absence of a shared and continuous vision, in large part because we change mayors every four or eight years,” he said.

“Scenic Jacksonville is conducting a brief survey of our supporters to get their ideas, which we will submit to the Task Force,” Nancy Powell, the nonprofit’s executive director, said. “Our preliminary ideas center around providing activities that utilize our great waterfront and basic amenities to attract people downtown and making our streets friendly and well-maintained.”

Powell and her husband have lived in Avondale since 1990 and raised their three children there. “We love the historic homes, parks, trees and walkability. And we’re close to downtown so it’s easy to get to the symphony, The Florida Theatre, or the Jaguars games.”

“Having lived at the Berkman Plaza and worked in Downtown Jacksonville for more than a decade, I am happy to see a group talk about projects that may have an immediate impact,” said Michelle Barth, advancement and external affairs associate director for the Jacksonville Symphony. “The faith community, sporting and special events, and very significantly, the arts, have long brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to downtown each year. All of these things help to bring together our community.”

Kelly Rich, executive director of the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council, said, “Springfield’s success is Downtown’s success [and vice versa]. I would love for these discussions to include surrounding neighborhood leaders for brainstorming partnerships.”

“As the president of the duPont Fund and a relatively new Jacksonville resident, I think potential quick wins are walkability, bike and scooter friendliness, and deregulation of public spaces like sidewalks and Riverwalk extensions to encourage and support creative public uses and activation,” said Mari Kuraishi. She said she lives in Avondale because she loves the architecture, its commitment to preserving the history of the community and “its kissing canopies of street trees.”

The public is invited to offer suggestions and comments by emailing [email protected]. Updates are available at or by directly contacting Cantrece Jones ([email protected]), president of Acuity Design Group who is leading the public outreach efforts.

By Karen Rieley
Resident Community News

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