by Mike Sharkey
The current hot-button topic is Downtown Jacksonville. From St. Augustine to Forsyth Street, everyone seems to have an opinion on what should happen Downtown and when. The budding debate centers on the City’s desire to implement Mayor John Peyton’s “Big Idea” and the growing contingent that would like to see Downtown developed by private residential and commercial developers.
There is so much “When is this going to happen?” that folks may have forgotten what has happened over the past decade.
Ten years ago, General Counsel Rick Mullaney had an office on the sixth floor of the City Hall Annex on Bay Street. At the time, he was chief of staff under Mayor Ed Austin and Downtown was a shell of its current state. Mullaney contends the past decade may be — or prove to be — the most exceptional in Jacksonville history.
“You could argue that the last 10-15 years have been the most dynamic and transformational in the history of Jacksonville, other than the decade after the Great Fire of 1901,” said Mullaney, who now occupies an office on the fourth floor of the St. James Building. “Ten years ago, there was no Ruth’s Chris, no Morton’s and the Hilton was closed and abandoned.”
True, true and not really. The Hilton wasn’t open for business, but at the time, mayoral-candidate John Delaney was using it as campaign headquarters.
There’s a long list of other things that weren’t Downtown 10 years ago: a new arena and baseball park, a renovated football stadium, The Plaza (Berkman), Cathedral Towers, 11 E., The Carling, the Hyatt, The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts and a host of others. The Southbank was pretty much barren and the Northbank Riverwalk didn’t exist. And, LaVilla was a mess.
“LaVilla was nothing but crack houses, prostitution and crime,” said Mullaney. “It was poor aesthetically and it was crime infested. We spent $25 million for the acquisition of LaVilla, mostly through eminent domain. It was a totally blighted area.”
Today, LaVilla is the home to law firms, a school, banks and other businesses. But, the best is yet to come. LaVilla’s eastern edge abuts the western edge of what will become the justice complex — an area of Downtown that will include the United States Courthouse and, eventually, the entire seven-block County Courthouse facility. It’s expected that law offices and related businesses will spring up in the area as well as retail and restaurants.
Corporately, no Fortune 500 companies called Jacksonville home 10 years ago. Today, Fidelity National Financial has relocated from Santa Barbara, Calif. and CSX established its headquarters in Downtown Jacksonville.
The Genesis of Downtown’s rebirth was Austin’s vision and his River City Renaissance — a $250 million redevelopment plan financed through either new bonds or the extension of existing, yet expiring, bonds. The plan financed the T-U Center, the renovations to the Gator Bowl — a dilapidated structure at the time — the relocation of City Hall and several other projects. Mullaney firmly believes that without the RCR, much of what’s Downtown today wouldn’t exist. No Jacksonville Jaguars, no Toyota Gator Bowl or ACC Championship, no Florida-Georgia game — all events that infuse millions of dollars into the local economy — no residential housing on either side of the river and a stagnant Hemming Plaza.
“The vision started with Ed, it was built upon by Mayor Delaney and Mayor Peyton is continuing that vision,” said Mullaney, who’s first day as General Counsel under Delaney was Dec. 1, 1997, the same day the St. James Building was reopened as City Hall. “At the time, Ed was criticized for paying $3 million for the building. It has over 300,000 square feet and was renovated for a total cost of $29 million. There’s no way you could that today.”
Austin’s vision — which was narrowly approved by City Council, 10-9 — saved more than Downtown.
“The Florida-Georgia game was threatening to leave. We spent about $50 million just to keep the game,” explained Mullaney. “Ed was instrumental in bringing the Jaguars to town.”
While public dollars have fueled major capital projects — think the Better Jacksonville Plan and the resultant Arena, Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and Main Library — private residential developments (with some public incentives) have also helped revitalize Downtown the past 10 years. Mullaney also credits the cooperation between the three mayoral administrations and City Council.
“The Southbank has seen an explosion in residential housing,” said Mullaney, referring to the Strand, the Peninsula and San Marco Place projects, all of which are under construction. “In the last decade, there has been an investment of over $1 billion of public and private capital in Downtown. Well over a billion.”
It’s good folks are worried about the future. But, see, plenty has taken place Downtown in the recent past.