by Glenn Tschimpke
New York has Central Park. San Francisco has Golden Gate Park. Portland has Washington Park. Jacksonville has pocket parks.
Pocket parks: Jacksonville’s answer to the oddly shaped and sometimes unusable bits of land throughout downtown.
Sporadically placed throughout the core city, downtown’s pocket parks offer welcome respite for Jacksonville’s desk-weary lunchtime workers and wander-weary vagrants alike.
The trouble with pocket parks is that if you blink, you’ll miss them. Downtown Jacksonville has five, if you’re counting.
The Jesse Smith Plaza, across from the Florida Theatre on East Forsyth Street, is downtown’s oldest. Named after a bureaucrat from yesteryear, the park was built in 1996, primarily to take care of an eyesore.
“There was a building on that corner,” said Fred Pope, landscape architect with the City’s Department of Public Works. “There was a fire and the building was gutted. When the owner didn’t appear to make any progress toward fixing it up, the City decided to purchase the property.”
From vacant lot to emerald haven awash with thick grass, shady trees and blooming flowers, the park offers a scenic cornerstone for theatergoers. In fact, the park was built to augment the Florida Theatre. The wooden decking was constructed to allow temporary tents when theater events predicate such an extravaganza.
Several smaller parks can be spotted in western downtown. A trio of landscaped oasis were constructed between 1999 and 2000 to provide a little downtown beautification. Informally known as the Broad and Bay Park, Broad and Water Park and Mack Evans Park (across from the Water Street Garage), these three chunks of land exemplify what can be done to beautify an otherwise bland cityscape.
A fifth park was built in LaVilla in recent years across from the Ritz Theater, which offers relief to theatergoers.
While City planners are looking to add more pocket parks to the mix, most are still nebulous at best.
“It’s been more a situation where a parcel came available and they decided to develop it,” said Pope, adding that many of the parks are built to alleviate eyesores as much as provide pedestrian relief. “Very often it’s a beautification effort for downtown.”
A guiding document for central city beautification is the Downtown Development Authority’s Downtown Master Plan, which outlines a whole system of parks. Adopted in May 2000, the Plan called for three pocket parks within two years at a cost of roughly $300,000.
“Since the Master Plan, there have been two pocket parks, the one at Broad and Bay streets and the Ritz Theatre park,” said DDA project manager Jason Thiel.
The third? Look for it to surface across from the proposed main library on Main Street sometime in the future.
The Downtown Master Plan calls for over $1 million to be spent on nine pocket parks in the next 10 years. Two have been built, one has been identified, six have yet to be determined.