by Max Marbut
As the Laura Street construction project moves toward its completion at Monroe Street, the next phase of the transformation of the four blocks from Hemming Plaza to the Landing is under way.
Friday morning, landscape architect Chris Flagg met with Ron Chamblin, owner of Chamblin’s Uptown bookstore and cafe, to talk about redesigning the front of the building. Also on hand were Downtown Vision Inc. Executive Director Terry Lorince and Director of District Service Amy Harrell.
The meeting was the first of a series with Laura Street property owners to begin redesigning the storefronts to complement the street and sidewalk improvements.
The property owners will be aided by a grant program funded by DVI that will provide funds matching a portion of each redesign after the work is complete. Flagg, vice chair of DVI’s board of directors and a member and past chair of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission’s Downtown Development Review Board, has a contract with the City’s Planning and Development Department to design the enhancements for property owners who want to participate in the grant program.
Lorince said the $100,000 in matching grants will come from a “one-time special projects reserve fund” that has taken a couple of years to develop. The timing of the grant availability is intended to coincide with the completion of construction, scheduled for late May.
Flagg pulled out his notebook and began recording ideas and making sketches. Chamblin said he envisions an ornate balcony built over the sidewalk that would allow cafe customers to dine on the second level. He brought out a book of historic photographs of Jacksonville as an example of what he has in mind, reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
He estimated the cost at more than $100,000, far beyond the scope of the grant program, which has a maximum reimbursement of 50 percent of improvement costs up to $20,000.
“I’m impressed with your aggressive vision,” Flagg said to Chamblin, who said the idea could take a few years for him to fund.
Flagg suggested expanding the cafe out onto the sidewalk by adding more tables. Planters could be installed along the curb to give people sitting at the tables security from passing vehicles.
To do that, he said, it would be a good idea to remove or at least modify the cast-iron grating that Chamblin installed when he renovated the building. Chamblin said the grating was for security afterhours and suggested it could be replaced with doors that would roll up when the cafe is open.
Flagg also suggested lighting under the building’s awning and possibly a juried contest for local artists to design a mural for the front face of the 1904 building.
Flagg met Friday with other property owners in the block between Adams and Monroe streets and will eventually work his way along Laura Street to the St. Johns River, consulting with stakeholders interested in participating in the grant program.
“This is a fantastic project. Hemming Plaza and The Landing are tremendous bookends,” he said.
Flagg also said the block on the north end of the four-block site is “exactly what you want in a downtown, due to its scale with the Elks Building on one side of the street and Snyder Memorial and the Greenleaf Building on the other.”
Flagg noted the significance of adding improvements to Chamblin’s Uptown and the building on the corner that houses Magnificat Cafe and its outdoor dining area.
“We have an opportunity to create a block that’s unlike any other in Jacksonville,” he said.
Sam Hamidi, owner of Casa Dora on Forsyth Street, has been putting an additional table on the sidewalk outside his Italian restaurant. Early morning passers-by might wonder who would want to eat at the table because it isn’t furnished with chairs. That’s because Hamidi has been using it for some springtime streetscape beautification with an arrangement of flowering plants and greenery.
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