by Liz Daube
The Florida Riverwalk Exchange gathered in Jacksonville last week to learn about the successes and challenges of the Downtown Riverwalk.
About 15 representatives from riverwalks in Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Jupiter took a tour of the two-and-a-half mile pedestrian promenade. Downtown Vision, Inc. Executive Director Terry Lorince, Riverwalk architect Melody Bishop and Eric Lindstrom of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission answered questions and gave an overview of Jacksonville’s Riverwalk experience.
“We have one of the oldest riverwalks that’s been constructed,” said Lorince, adding that the first Riverwalk section was built on Downtown’s Southbank in 1985. “In 20 years, what have we learned and how have we been changing it?”
The Riverwalk currently has two sections connected by the Main Street Bridge: one on the Southbank and another spanning from just south of the St. Joe building in Riverside to The Plaza on the Northbank. The City owns roughly 60 acres of public land along the Riverwalk, but some private landowners maintain small parks and sections of the path along the way.
Lorince said Downtown residential development has led to plans for extending the Riverwalk on both banks of the St. Johns River.
“(There will be) 750 units of housing on the Northbank to be complete in a year; 1,000 coming on the Southbank,” said Lorince. “We know we will get residential during the near future.”
Lorince explained why the Riverwalk is a growing priority for the Downtown community.
“We’re becoming the place to go because it (waterfront retail) is all going away from the beach,” she said, listing former ocean view restaurants that have been sold to condominium developers. “When you come down here, it’s an experience unto itself. It is is our number one asset from a Downtown perspective. People come here for the Riverwalk.”
On the tour, a variety of issues were addressed. Lorince said increased security and more small, weekend events will be top priorities for the Riverwalk.
“There is a demand for that,” said Lorince. “What I don’t have is a consistent budget for it.”
Clad in visors and armed with bottles of water, the group marched along the Riverwalk in soaring August temperatures. Bishop pointed out some of the history and plans for many sections of the Riverwalk. Observations included:
• A planned “Artists Square” park linking the Riverwalk to Riverside and Memorial parks. Bishop said it’s still in design and construction.
• Maintenance of each section of land has to be negotiated with the landowners. According to Bishop, The Haskell Company and the St. Joe Company both maintain its own grounds, and Haskell even contributed a piece of public art to their waterfront spot.
• There may be more ways to stay cool. Bishop said additional shade structures and misting sprinklers are being considered.
• The area beneath the Acosta Bridge and over the railroad tracks has been difficult for a variety of reasons. The entire section had to be constructed elsewhere and moved in at once.The area underneath the Riverwalk has been a haven for homeless people and is currently littered with trash cans, tires and shopping carts. “This was a great location for them,” said Bishop. “It’s shaded. Homeless came out and slept here. That’s the one part of Riverwalk we really need to get cleaned up.”
• Disability access can be difficult to continue throughout the entire Riverwalk because of a winding path that brings pedestrians down a steep incline. “We won’t have much wheelchair use,” said Bishop. “It’s difficult to negotiate.”
• There are no limits on travel on the Riverwalk: skateboarders, rollerbladers and bicyclists are all welcome – for now, at least.
• Bishop predicts that water taxis will become a more common mode of transportation between the north and south banks of the river. But the water taxi probably won’t visit Riverside; the train tracks pose too much of a scheduling problem.
• The most frequent Riverwalk complaint is the narrow width of the sidewalk by the Landing, according to Bishop. She said the path might eventually get extended about 3 feet toward the water. Right now, foot traffic often escapes into the wide path inside the outdoor mall.
Ben Wacksman, Tampa Friends of the Riverwalk fundraising chairman and founder of the Florida Riverwalk Exchange, said riverwalks have enjoyed immense popularity in recent years. Each riverwalk has similarities, he added, but Jacksonville’s “size and scope” make it unique.
Wacksman said Tampa’s Riverwalk will be just half the size of Jacksonville’s when complete – a goal Tampa hopes to accomplish before the 2009 Super Bowl.
Several guests said they were enjoying the chance to see and learn from Jacksonville’s Riverwalk.
“This morning, I was out on the other side and I saw dolphins,” said Wacksman. “The view was magnificent.”