Residents praise the benefits of living in the urban core — but not everything’s perfect.
By Maggie Fitzroy Contributing Writer
Downtown Jacksonville resident Heather Adams loves the social advantages of living in her high-rise building overlooking the St. Johns River. Since moving to The Plaza Condominium at Berkman Plaza and Marina three years ago, she has befriended people she’s met in the elevator, in hallways and at the pool.
Adams and six pals, calling themselves The Berkman Babes, get together often, including every Saturday morning when they walk to brunch at a nearby deli. They also go to Jaguars and Jumbo Shrimp games and concerts at Hemming Park — without hopping into a vehicle.
“I can go a week without having to get into my car,” Adams said. “There is always something to do. It drives me crazy when people say there is nothing to do in Jacksonville. I say, ‘well, you are just not looking.’”
Living in the city’s urban core has plenty of pluses, according to residents.
Wiatt Bower, who has lived at Parks at the Cathedral for 12 years, likes the convenience of being able to walk or ride his bike to arts and sporting events, to museums and the library, without paying for parking.
Dimitri Demopoulos, who bought a condominium at Churchwell Lofts in 2010, said his home is in “the hub of the wheel” of the Jacksonville area. When he does get in his car, it’s a short drive to bridges and highways that will take him where he wants to go.
He lives a few blocks from Interstate 95; a short distance from I-10. If he wants to visit Jacksonville Beach, the Hart Bridge entrance is a block away.
“It’s very nice. I have my pick of surrounding suburbs,” he said. “They are there like an artist’s palate.”
Although, he adds, Jacksonville’s Downtown still has “a long way to go,” a sentiment echoed by others.
Some buildings stand empty. There is a need for more restaurants and retail. Some parks are underused; others need to be cleaned up and restored.
Everyone agrees on the solution, said Jake Gordon, chief executive officer of Downtown Vision Inc., a nonprofit with the mission to build and maintain a healthy and vibrant Downtown community.
“People talk to me everyday about what Downtown needs,” he said. “Downtown needs more people.”
The city defines the boundaries of Downtown as I-95 to the south and west, State Street to the north, and the St. Johns River to the east, which Gordon said encompasses about 3 square miles.
Downtown Vision oversees 90 blocks, or about a half square mile, in the center.
There are 18 multifamily projects within Downtown, but they are spread out within the 3-mile area, and they are mostly occupied, Gordon said. The demand for living in those units is high.
He said additional housing is the solution to bringing in more people. “If you build more units, people will want to rent them.”
Because of demand, he said he believes more people will move Downtown in the next decade as more housing becomes available.
The challenge, he said, is the cost of construction versus the cost of rents. But progress is being made.
The historic Barnett Bank Building is slated to include residential units, thanks to financial incentives from the city, which wants more people living Downtown, he said.
“The city is doing right by the taxpayers,” Gordon said.
Three affordable multifamily communities by Vestcor also are adding Downtown living space.
The first, Lofts at LaVilla, completed in December with 130 units, is 100 percent occupied, Vestcor Marketing Manager Holly Hepler said.
The second, Lofts at Monroe, is under construction and just started leasing its 108 units. The third, Lofts at Jefferson Station, will have 133 units and is expected to be completed by fall 2019.
Bower, a professional urban planner, said he moved to Parks at the Cathedral because he likes urban living. But in the dozen years he has lived there, he is disappointed in the city’s lack of investments.
“I would like to see more vibrancy and less vagrancy,” Bower said. “We have a serious problem with vagrants.”
Jacksonville also has a “wonderful chain of parks,” including the Emerald Necklace along Hogans Creek, which if restored and maintained “could be a game-changer,” he said. Right now, “they are not well invested. It makes it much harder to attract people.”
Downtown residents are a mix of a people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds, said Demopoulos, a member of Downtown Dwellers, an organization that supports living there. “Little by little things are improving.”
He just wishes at a faster pace.
More people would “make it more of a neighborhood. Bring more demand for grocery stores, for retail,” Gordon said. “The people who live there now are pioneers.”