by Max Marbut
One day – probably in the not-too-distant future, there will be a grand opening celebration for the renovation of Metropolitan Park. When that day comes, 40 citizens will be able to walk through the main gate, take a look around and say, “I was there to help decide what Metropolitan Park needs to be.”
This group, which included architects, professional urban planners and people who were just interested in Jacksonville’s future, gathered in a meeting room in the Ed Ball Building on a drizzly Saturday morning in November. They were there to participate in a community visioning exercise, also called a “charrette,” that would determine what it would take to make Metropolitan Park more appealing as a destination to more people.
The workshop was sponsored by JaxPride, a nonprofit citizen coalition that works to increase public awareness of the importance of how the city looks to residents and visitors alike. JaxPride also channels the community’s ideas and suggestions, when feasible, into action on specific projects.
JaxPride board member Matt Eaton said over the years the organization has sponsored similar workshops to seek public input on projects from the conversion of Hemming Park into Hemming Plaza, developing the Southbank and creating the 103rd Street corridor.
Shortly after 9 a.m., JaxPride Executive Committee President Oliver Barakat welcomed the volunteer planners and said, “JaxPride has used the charrette process many times over the years as a way to obtain the public’s input into public projects.
“Metropolitan Park is 32 acres of riverfront property that is an absolutely critical part of our community and Mayor Peyton has told us improving Metropolitan Park is one of the things he wants to do before leaving office.”
Jacksonville Economic Development Commission Executive Director Ron Barton addressed the participants and explained how Metropolitan Park, including “Kids Kampus” fits in with the City’s “Downtown Action Plan” in terms of improving the community’s access to open space. He said enhancing the park does not involve a, “multimillion dollar vertical development,” and added, “In great cities, waterfront parks drive people downtown. Today’s exercise is about taking a valuable asset and making it more relevant to the community. We don’t have 24-hours-a-day, seven-day-a-week activity Downtown yet, so we must use our open spaces to attract people.”
Architect Chris Noel chairs the JaxPride charrette committee and got the process started by explaining, “The more ideas we can talk about in terms of improving the Metropolitan Park experience, the better. The architects and planners who are here today are not here to push their ideas. This process is about empowering the public and seeking input.”
HDR has been retained by the City as the consultant on the Metropolitan Park improvement project and has a contract to submit a preliminary Master Plan to the City by the end of January. Carol Worsham, managing principal of HDR’s Jacksonville office, shared some of the results of HDR’s preliminary study of the current usage of the park.
“We have determined that 90 percent of the people who come to Metropolitan Park arrive by car,” she said. “The only significant access via the river is when boaters dock near the park for sports events or entertainment events.”
Worsham also said that within 10 years, the property west of Metropolitan Park is likely to be developed into mixed-use residential and retail and there could be a hotel on the property west of the park.
Noel got the charrette underway by randomly dividing the 40 citizen planners into five groups and then said to come up with as many ideas as possible and “don’t think anything is out of the question.”
The groups spent more than an hour listing the current strengths and weaknesses they have experienced through using Metropolitan Park. Some of the comments were:
“It’s great for large events because there’s plenty of parking nearby.”
“There’s a lot of open green space but the signage isn’t so good. It’s nice, but it really doesn’t engage the river.”
“The Fire Museum at the Kids Kampus end isn’t interactive at all, and that’s not for kids.”
Following the evaluation process, Mayor John Peyton stopped by the charrette to share his thoughts about Metropolitan Park and its place in Jacksonville’s future.
“I am not proud of the quality of this City-owned facility,” said Peyton. “What we currently have is a grade-A space with grade-D facilities. There’s more chain-link fence in that park than anywhere in Jacksonville.”
Peyton had just returned from the Chamber of Commerce Leadership Trip and that experience made him think about Metropolitan Park.
“People in Seattle would give their right arm to have a riverfront park,” he said.
Peyton also pointed out that to implement the entire Downtown Action Plan immediately would cost $500 million the City does not have, “So we’re picking projects that don’t cost a lot of money. I’m going to do everything in my power in the next 31 months until I leave office to make Metropolitan Park a better place for all of us.”
After each team presented its ideas and site plan to the entire group, hundreds of pages of suggestions and site drawings were collected by the HDR staff at the charrette for consideration as part of the official study the firm will present to the City.
“I was very happy with the results because it became obvious Metropolitan Park does not represent a complicated project in terms of what people think the park should become,” said Worsham, after a few days to evaluate the suggestions.
Worsham added that even with five different teams representing a wide range of Metropolitan Park user groups, the improvement suggestions were consistent and could be categorized into three main issues.
“Every group said the facilities are outdated and run down. Everyone also agreed that Metropolitan Park currently has no identity and it’s not a place people go to unless there is a special event happening there. We also heard that it’s too compartmentalized and not functioning as a park as big as it is. In other words, there are too many ‘little uses.’ We have to make it a place that the citizens will use on a daily basis.
“The teams also said the park doesn’t engage the river well at all. It’s there, but it may as well not be. That will be the biggest challenge for the design and engineering plan for the space,” she said.
Another charette veteran, Barakat, agreed the effort for the park yielded excellent results.
“I was surprised at the relative consensus among the groups,” he said. “Especially given that Downtown doesn’t have the constituency of other neighborhoods. I think it worked so well because we had such a good cross-section of the community and people really got involved in the process. There was a lot of passion at those tables.”