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Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 22, 202106:10 PM EST

Mayoral panel to recommend ‘deliverable’ Downtown improvements 

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The Vestcor Companies Chairman John Rood said the Curry administration plans to implement the panel’s recommendations within two years.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

A working group of Downtown CEOs and business leaders formed by Mayor Lenny Curry met Feb. 23 to draft recommendations to the city to improve the urban core.

The group’s lead member, The Vestcor Companies Chairman John Rood, said the panel will meet at least twice more by the end of March to meet Curry’s charge of recommending Downtown improvements that can be funded and implemented in the next two years.

“I care about it because I think if you don’t have an urban core you’re going to lose our young people,” Rood said in an interview after the meeting.

“A vibrant urban core is critical to keeping young talent in a community.”

The panel at the Jacksonville Main Library included JAXUSA President Aundra Wallace, Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford, Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer and Fidelity National Information Services Inc. Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff Amy Mergen.

Curry also named Hanania Automotive Group CEO Jack Hanania and GreenPointe Holdings LLC CEO Ed Burr to the working group, but the mayor said they were unable to attend Feb. 22.

The Vestcor Companies Chairman John Rood said vibrant urban core is "critical to keeping young talent in a community.”

During the two-hour meeting, the panel discussed improving Downtown code enforcement, beautification, transportation and walkability, safety and lighting and the homeless. 

The group plans to use existing studies, Downtown employee and resident surveys and community input for its recommendations. 

According to Rood, the Downtown mayoral working group will operate under Florida Sunshine Law and state open records laws.

Rood said Curry intends to fund the recommendations as part of the city budget’s five-year capital improvement plan.

He said Curry reached out to him in mid-January about leading the panel and they walked through the urban core to see its strengths and needs. 

“I told him, ‘I’m not going to do this and give him a long list if it’s going to be ignored,’ and he assured me it’s not,” Rood said.

Curry gave a three-minute prepared statement and introduction Feb. 22 before leaving the meeting.

“The successful revitalization also needs to focus on the details, the small things that make a big difference in attracting people, investments and opportunity Downtown,” Curry said.

Homelessness

Services and housing for Downtown’s homeless population were top concerns for the private citizens, business owners and nonprofit leaders who addressed the panel. 

Wallace said the city needs to work with the “ecosystem” of available services to move people off the streets. The JAXUSA president said that would help those in need and address perceived safety concerns that he sees as a challenge to growth Downtown.

Changing Homelessness Inc. CEO Dawn Gilman told the panel Jacksonville could look to Cleveland as a model for dedicated annual funding for rapid rehousing. 

She said a tent encampment at Jefferson and Beaver streets has grown since the city and nonprofit Sulzbacher relocated 50 people from the site Feb. 5 to hotels as part of a rapid rehousing program.

“Homelessness, as we see it today, is a completely solvable problem. The only cure to homelessness is a home,” Gilman said. 

“We are seeing folks relocate from throughout Northeast Florida who are experiencing homelessness to that location because they think that will prioritize them for housing.”

Gilman said there also is a need for more affordable housing.

Shelby VanDervort moved to Jacksonville in 2018 from Nashville, Tennessee, and lives in the renovated former Lawton Pratt Funeral Home in LaVilla.

VanDervort told the panel she finds drug needles in the parking lot and human waste on her front porch from the homeless, but she still feels an attachment to the neighborhood.

She said the goal should not be to copy towns like Tampa or Nashville but find Jacksonville’s own Downtown identity to spark growth. 

“When I tell people I live Downtown they have an immediate concern for my safety and people worry for me,” she said. 

“I don’t think that’s right and I think we should definitely improve in how people feel in Downtown and improve on the homeless population.” 

Downtown data testimonials

Fidelity’s Mergen said the company is surveying its employees for how they view and use Downtown retail services, amenities and housing. 

Rood asked Curry administration officials Feb. 22 to expand the effort to include VyStar Credit Union workers — one of Downtown’s largest employers.

“Those employees want to live Downtown and we’re not giving them the type of environment that they want to live. It makes recruiting harder than it needs to be,” Rood said. 

The unfinished Berkman Plaza II.

The Riverfront

Boyer said the DIA board will discuss the public park and private commercial development along Downtown’s St. Johns riverfront in a more in-depth discussion Feb. 23 in a joint workshop with City Council and Downtown Development Review Board.

DIA is working on a riverfront development strategy with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. 

JWB Real Estate Capital President Alex Sifakis told the panel the city should not consider solely private development or solely public park space along the Downtown riverfront.

Sifakis intends to renovate the historic Florida Baptist Convention Building and the Old Federal Reserve Bank Building at Church and Hogan streets in the urban core. JWB also owns the multifamily Ashley Street Container Lofts development and other Downtown properties. 

“We need amazing parks along the riverfront, but I think it’s very important that we are pro-development,” Sifakis said. “You need great development surrounding your parks to really turn them into great parks.”

Targeting redevelopment

In addition to code enforcement, the group should recommend the city move to intervene on Downtown’s most dilapidated structures, Wallace said. 

Park Beeler, the co-managing member of developer Jacksonville Riverfront Revitalization, shared the company’s plans to purchase, demolish and redevelop the unfinished Berkman Plaza II high-rise on Bay Street with 300 residential units, retail uses and public park space.

Wallace said removing the 13-year-old shell structure should be a panel recommendation.

“Thirteen years is a long time,” Wallace said. “If the acquisition doesn’t go through, I would like for a recommendation coming out of this group that the city purchase it, demolish it and make it part of the Shipyards.” 

The Shipyards land is east of Berkman Plaza II.

The panel’s next meeting has not been scheduled but Rood expects to reconvene within two weeks.

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