Stewarding the urban core: The Emerald Trail dream becomes reality

Stewarding the urban core: The Emerald Trail dream becomes reality
The Riverside Spur of the Emerald Trail kicks off at the Fuller Warren Bridge and ends at Memorial Park.

Creating a trail encircling Jacksonville’s urban core and its surrounding historic neighborhoods is no longer just a pipe dream. Local nonprofit Groundwork Jacksonville has raised funds and work has begun on The Emerald Trail, a 30-mile urban trail that will engage, educate and inspire residents and visitors alike.

The trail will highlight the geographic diversity unique to Northeast Florida. When completed, the trail will link San Marco, Brooklyn, Riverside, Lackawanna, Mixon Town, Robinson’s Addition, College Gardens, New Town, Durkeeville, Hogans Creek, Phoenix, Eastside, Springfield, Downtown and LaVilla. Visitors will travel along the banks of McCoys and Hogan creeks and walk the riverwalks on both sides of the St. Johns River. The trail will link to 16 schools, two colleges and 21 parks, with 13 additional schools and 17 parks located within three blocks. Twenty of the trail’s 30 miles will be built new.

“Jacksonville is incredibly spread out, and the suburbs have little relationship to the urban core,” said Kay Ehas, Groundwork Jacksonville’s CEO. “I hope the trail will be a social connector as well as a physical connector.”

Lori Boyer, CEO of Downtown Investment Authority (DIA), says that the trail will have major economic impact on the city.

“The Emerald Trail will help us recruit workforce to Jacksonville, especially younger workers, which makes the city attractive to businesses considering moving here,” said Boyer. “Ít will increase property values and redevelopment opportunities in neighborhoods that are currently underutilized, which increases tax revenue to support schools, police and other city services.”

Boyer says a number of developments, either planned or already underway, have access to the trail in mind, including One Riverside (at the former Times-Union site), the Lofts at Brooklyn and LaVilla’s new Johnson Common Townhomes.

People can already see the project taking place in the LaVilla segment. McCoys Creek Boulevard from Cherokee Street to Margaret Street has been removed and new culs-de-sac with parks have been constructed on the following streets: Sunshine, Crystal, Leland, Smith and Broward. Nixon Street has been reconstructed and provides access to nearby properties and roadways. Greenways, landscaping and sidewalks have been added.

Bridges on Stockton and King streets will be replaced with new bridges at higher elevations. Bike paths and sidewalks will be added to both bridges.

Groundwork Jacksonville has engaged with neighborhood stakeholders, business leaders, funders and the City to plan the trail. It hopes to have the trail completed by 2029, with one segment under construction and one in design at the same time. The LaVilla link connecting Brooklyn and LaVilla communities to the S-Line Rail Trail in the Railyard District should open by the end of March with opening festivities in April. Cost is projected at $8.9 million. The Hogan Street segment between Riverwalk and FSCJ is in design now with construction expected to begin in late summer 2023, with a projected cost of $7.9 million.

The Riverside spur will be the trail’s third project. Groundwork Jacksonville is currently raising funds for this link. Local Rotary clubs have committed to raising $250,000 over the next three years to fund completion of the trail from Memorial Park to the Riverside Arts Market.

Members of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville with Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Kay Ehas during a tour of McCoy's Creek.
Members of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville with Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Kay Ehas during a tour of McCoy’s Creek.

“We wanted to be involved because we have the most government, civic and private leaders as our members, and we thought it was important for us to get out front to set an example for the rest of the community,” said Jim Agee, president of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.

According to Agee, the Emerald Trail fits into all of Rotary’s focus areas, in particular community economic development, disease prevention and treatment and peace-building conflict prevention.

“This can tie the whole city back to the river and be transformational,” said Agee. “Ten years from now people will say this is when Jacksonville turned the corner and started using that jewel of a river.”

“We will be the first community service organization to put some investment in the trail,” said Tommy Grimes said, chairman of the Rotary’s Emerald Trail Campaign. “We saw this as an opportunity for all Rotary clubs to support this together.”

According to Grimes, other cities’ similar trails are realizing $10 in revenue from every $1 they have invested in the trail. Also, for every $1 invested in the trail, there is a $3 reduction in healthcare costs for the community.

In late May 2022, the Jacksonville City Council approved legislation to raise the Local Option Gas Tax by six cents per gallon to generate $1 billion over the next 30 years for major transportation and infrastructure improvements. The council earmarked $132 million of that revenue to build the trail. It designated the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to oversee projects for The Emerald Trail, with the Riverside link as its first construction project on the trail.

A number of corporations have donated to the project; for example, VyStar Credit Union gave $275,000. Private donors have stepped up to the plate as well, like Steve and Michael Pajcic, who have made a four-year pledge of $200,000.

“My brother, Gary, and I used to put our canteens on our belt and hike the creek behind our house to Westbrook Creek which flowed into McCoys Creek,” Steve Pajcic said.

“When I first learned to ride a bike, my dad would take me to the great park in Murray Hill behind the Dreamette to ride our bikes down the incline and into Hollybrook Creek which feeds into McCoys Creek,” said Michael Pajcic. “It will be a joy to now be able to ride bikes with my daughter in the same area and for everyone to see it reopened to the world.”

By Karen Rieley
Resident Community News

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