Becoming a Better Bold City

Becoming a Better Bold City
Top Left: Michael Balanky, Top Right: Matt Marshall, Bottom Left: Stephen Crosby, Bottom Right: Oliver Barakat

Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI) released its 2023 State of Downtown Report in October. This annual report encompasses an 18-month timeframe from January 2022 to June 30, 2023, and analyzes Downtown Jacksonville’s “performance in key indicators of urban revitalization, such as development and investment, residential demand, office market and employment base, transportation enhancement and tourism health” to track its growth.

Additionally, it breaks down development incentive programs created by the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA), tracks various trends across different categories – from downtown visits (both from tourism and Jacksonville residents coming into downtown) to office occupancy – and details development highlights.

“I think the big takeaway, honestly, is exponential growth,” said DVI CEO Jake Gordon.

According to the report, which Gordon explained is an “agnostic” reflection of the numbers and projects that are in the pipeline and moving through various stages of the approval or construction processes, there is $8 billion “in the project pipeline” for developments across different categories (mixed use, residential, office, retail, etc.) throughout downtown. Compare that to the $5 billion from last year’s report.

“That’s a huge increase compared to what’s actually been invested in downtown over the last two decades or so,” he said. “We really think there’s a lot of progress thanks to the last mayor, now being continued by this mayor. Between 2000 and 2020, there was about $3 billion in projects. So, if we’re at $8 billion in progress right now, that is just kind of – via the numbers – kind of showing that we’re in for a huge change in downtown as all these projects get finalized.”

The Resident News reached out to the following experts for their thoughts on the data presented in the 2023 State of Downtown report and what it means for the future of Downtown Jacksonville: Michael Balanky, Chase Properties founder, president and CEO; Matt Marshall, Senior Vice President of Development at RISE: A Real Estate Co.; Stephen Crosby, DVI board member and former CEO for InvestJax; and Oliver Barakat, DIA founding member and inaugural chairman and current DVI board member.

Creating Synergy and Overcoming Challenges

After reviewing the report, Balanky said, “It’s hard not to get excited about the opportunities in downtown Jacksonville. DIA, DVI and Build Up Downtown (BUD) have done an incredible job to bring us where we are today.”

Marshall said creating synergy is a necessary component of revitalizing the downtown area. Finding the areas lacking activation and filling them in to create a seamless, walkable downtown is essential to creating that synergy. The challenge for Downtown Jacksonville, he said, is it’s a large swath of land. Filling those gaps will take time, but there is a focus and determination to see it done.

“Now people can walk through the downtown area, then you have these dry zones where it seems like not a lot is happening,” he said. “But that’s because all of this just recently started within the last, say, 12 years, 15 years. Before that they didn’t have a focus of downtown development. So, that will all improve.”

Crosby said downtown’s size, geographically, is one of its biggest challenges and therefore “creating density and centralized activity” for the area is a challenge in itself. Even the riverfront presents its own set of challenges, despite also being a major asset to downtown.

“Perhaps the two most successful riverfront stretches to date, Brooklyn and the Southbank, between Friendship Fountain and the School Board building, have taken years for the market to infill,” he said. “Despite significant public and private sector investment and massive construction over the last 20 years, neither segment is yet to be completed. But it’s coming along very nicely, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

At-a-(Deeper)-Glance Observations

A deeper look may be necessary to fully understand all the moving parts that must be considered when making moves to activate the downtown, urban core and there are several things an outside observer can miss about Jacksonville if they don’t have or take the time to look beneath the surface.

Barakat said one thing that’s not obvious to an outside observer is private developers’ desire to be in Downtown Jacksonville.

“Many of them are looking for properties to invest and there’s not as many properties available to invest anymore,” he said. “And the ones that are available, the prices have increased, so the bargains are gone. I think that’s a result of the expectations in the development community that downtown is heading in the right direction. It’s just a matter of when, and not if, the downtown will revitalize.”

As with any endeavor, relationships are key to the successes Downtown Jacksonville has or will continue to see as more and more developers come to the City for approval or incentives to bring their projects to fruition.

Balanky said another unseen detail (for an outside observer) is that the “DIA, DVI and BUD have forged alliances where everyone is in constant communication and pulling in the same direction.”

Keeping Pace with Development

Downtown development – be it private, public or a collaboration between the two – has been evolving at a brisk pace these last few years, and it is vital that supportive, infrastructural development keep pace with that evolution. Barakat voiced concerns regarding some of those city-led infrastructural projects being slower to get going.

“Whether it’s due to limited bandwidth, the pandemic or impacts regarding the pandemic, it’s taking a long time to get certain infrastructure projects off the ground,” he said. “The new mayor has referenced that numerous times, and is trying to focus on it. It’s not just a downtown issue, it’s a citywide issue, but it’s particularly a problem downtown because, traditionally, there’s not been a lot of public projects in the urban core.”

“We really need those projects to match and supplement the private development activity,” he added. “Once you bring residents downtown, you need to give them high-quality amenities and resources so that they stay downtown. So that’s what the city’s really got to figure out: How to execute those plans. They’re good plans but they take too long.”

Crosby noted a common critique he’s heard several times, that Jacksonville has become “a city of renderings.” He said while that may appear true on the surface, those renderings are vital procedural components of bringing new development to the city. They give developers opportunities to gather feedback from consumer markets, necessary governmental entities and financial communities “to test [the projects’] viability.” That feedback is crucial to identifying necessary modifications for a project and may lead to more renderings in the short-term, but ultimately are the steppingstones that lead to brick-and-mortar developments for the community.

“Despite what you may read from time to time about what hasn’t yet happened downtown and pesky annoyances we all encounter now and then, downtown is moving forward with pace,” Crosby said. “The number of renderings that will come to life in the next couple years marks terrific progress despite difficult economic headwinds. The coordination between the city government, private developers and NGOs like Downtown Vision, Groundwork Jacksonville, Build Up Jacksonville, etc. is at a level I haven’t seen in my 20 years of downtown involvement. Everyone involved should be congratulated for keeping their eye on the ball, putting the vision of the master plan ahead of organizational interests and showing extraordinary commitment.”

RISE: A Real Estate Co. is in the process of wrapping up construction on The Doro, its mixed-use development in the Sports and Entertainment District, the district’s first development, according to Marshall, with a residential component.

Between The Doro, the new Four Seasons, the recently announced soccer stadium and other projects moving into the area, Marshall said that district “is really taking off.”

“The city is activating the river along that area; I think is fantastic,” he said. “I will say that area definitely needs more restaurants. It just doesn’t have enough. I understand why the restaurants haven’t moved in, but as more residential moves into that area, they need restaurants – and decent quality restaurants – in the sports and entertainment district.”

More Investment Needed

Crosby touched on the private investment in Downtown over the last decade but expanded on it to note the “significant public sector support and investment” it has induced over the last decade. The DIA has worked to guide that level of public support through its Downtown Master Plan, which was recently updated as well.

“The foundational elements of this plan go back at least 10 years,” he said. “The amount of private investment that we’ve seen would never have happened without this attention and support.”

To maintain the necessary momentum to achieve the goal of a revitalized, active and vibrant downtown, Balanky said “relentless vision and execution” is required, achieving critical mass is essential, and reaching that critical mass can be done several ways, including developing “the more than 200 municipally owned surplus properties downtown.”

“In addition to producing zero ad valorem taxes, these municipally owned properties create a major expense to the city budget due to large maintenance and insurance costs. If these properties are transferred to the private sector, they will save the city/municipalities millions of dollars annually in maintenance and insurance fees and will put tens of millions of additional dollars on the ad valorem tax rolls per year,” he said.

“This is how you create critical mass, when structured property incentives are an investment rather than an expense,” Balanky said. “A well-structured incentive plan should get a good return on investment.”

Barakat said there are several projects he’s excited to see advance, most notably the proposed Museum of Science and History (MOSH) development, Shipyards West Park, the Emerald Trail, the Four Seasons and the Gateway Jax project.

“Because it’s in the urban core of downtown and on the periphery of downtown and because it’s got significant scale, if it happens, it is a game changer for the Northbank core of downtown,” he said.

Likewise, Marshall is eager to see the connectivity the Emerald Trail will bring to the neighborhoods, colleges and parks. He views the trail as “an absolutely enormous opportunity for the City of Jacksonville to go above and beyond what you typically see in downtowns.”

“I think that money is well worth the expense and the effort to go through because I think that if the Emerald Trail can get fully built out and connected, it will change downtown. It will allow developers in, [who] will start looking at the Emerald Trail as a huge asset to their potential residents and/or customers,” he said.

To read the full 2023 State of Downtown Report, visit

By Michele Leivas
Resident Community News

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