Excitement builds across the river as Fuller Warren Shared-Use Path nears completion

Construction on the Fuller Warren Bridge expansion and its shared-use path — as part of the improvements to the I-10/I-95 interchange —  began in 2017. Six years later, work on the bridge’s pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly path is near completion and it is expected to open this fall amid much fanfare on both sides of the St. Johns River.

When the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) first presented its proposal to expand the bridge, Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) Executive Director Shannon Blankinship recalled it being met with opposition.

“Most people who showed up to the public meetings were like, ‘We don’t need an expanded Fuller Warren Bridge; we don’t need any extra lane,’” she said.

Once the idea of also installing a shared-use path along the bridge was introduced, though, Blankinship said the opposition very quickly switched to support for the idea and thus began the six-year process of designing and constructing a separate lane for pedestrians and cyclists to safely cross the St. Johns River from San Marco to Riverside and vice versa.

FDOT Community Outreach Manager Hampton Ray said the department carefully considers community feedback on every project proposal and, if possible, incorporates public suggestions into that project. Adding the shared-use path to the Fuller Warren Bridge expansion is a prime example of the process of community discourse working, he explained.

“I’m really excited for it — I think it’s gonna be a great community feature,” added Ray. “I’m from Jacksonville and I love Jacksonville…To be able to bike or walk across the bridge, it’s gonna be a really great feature.”

Preserving the space beneath the Fuller Warren Bridge for the Riverside Arts Market (RAM) and ensuring it would not be reduced or otherwise impacted by the construction was a primary concern for RAP and the Riverside community, Blankinship said, adding that “luckily we were able to have compliance with” protecting that space.

“That was very challenging,” she said. “It meant getting barges to hold a lot of the equipment. It meant having lease agreements with nearby adjacent facilities and really making things, I would say, more burdensome on the construction team in order to accommodate every Saturday from 6 to 6 not having any impact on the footprint of the RAM.”

The knowledge that this shared-use path would soon be providing a point of access to Riverside and Avondale for people on foot or bike was the impetus for the newly announced Riverside Avondale Cultural Trail: Knowing people would be dropped off in the neighborhood, possibly with little or no knowledge of what was within their immediate vicinity spurred RAP to create its own trail for these people to continue to follow and experience the neighborhoods.

“Having this sort of cultural trail right here where people access our neighborhood from the shared-use path and the Post Street Day Dock is gonna allow them to quickly connect to the important cultural, historical and artistic pursuits and meaningfulness of some of the sites in the Five Points area,” she explained. “The Five Points Merchant Area, Memorial Park, the Garden Club, Riverside Row, the Cummer, the Riverside Arts Market. These are all things where they’re destinations in and of themselves, but they’re not necessarily connected to each other unless people know about the nearby amenities.”

On the other side of the river, Zim Boulos, an emeritus director of the San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS) recalled initial discussions on where the path would end on the San Marco side. Initially, he said, FDOT’s plans showed the path “connecting to the Palm Avenue intersection, which we felt was too dangerous,” he explained in an e-mail.

Boulos explained that then-Councilwoman Lori Boyer — now CEO of Jacksonville’s Downtown Investment Authority — arranged talks with SMPS, FDOT, and executives with Baptist Medical Center, Nemours Children’s Hospital to send the path behind Nemours Children’s Hospital, where it would connect to the San Marco exercise loop.

“We thought it would be great to have such an exercise loop on our south side of the river so that more people could experience the pre-dawn beauty of San Marco,” Boulos wrote. “Lori Boyer and LeAnna Cumber worked with Keith Tickell of Baptist Medical Center during the construction of the MD Anderson Cancer Center to build the first segment of the loop along Nira Street. The bike path will connect to the Nira Street segment, then cross Hendricks and Kings Avenue and will eventually connect to a future section that will go past the News4Jax building, then alongside the RiversEdge District development, where it will then connect to the existing Riverwalk.”

Blankinship said both RAP and SMPS have been working to organize celebrations on both ends of the shared-use path once it opens.

“For the grand opening celebration, we are planning to partner with San Marco Preservation Society and host a market on both sides of the river and then ways for folks on the San Marco side and the Riverside side to both access the shared use path at the same time and meet in the middle for some fun photos and venture to the other side and just experience the shared use path for the first time and have a reason to walk to the other side from wherever your starting point is,” she said.

As far as when exactly that will be, it is still unclear.

In an email on Aug. 22, Ray confirmed FDOT is still anticipating a fall opening for the shared-use path “weather and unforeseen circumstances permitting,” although a concrete date is as of yet unavailable.

“There’s an old saying,” Boulos wrote. “‘One generation plants a tree and the next generation enjoys the shade.’ Hopefully this pathway will be enjoyed for years to come by all those who come after us.”

By Michele Leivas
Resident Community News

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