by Glenn Tschimpke
May marks the second birthday of the Downtown Master Plan.
The comprehensive and optimistic plan is considered the blueprint for downtown revitalization which will transform Jacksonville’s decaying core city into a bustling 24-hour city. This month marks the two-year milepost for the three-phase, 10-year plan. The Downtown Development Authority, charged with overseeing the plan, will present an official report on its progress later this month. An early analysis shows mixed success for the plan.
As a whole, DDA planners are pleased with the outcome of Phase 1, albeit with a few failures.
“I think we’ve accomplished many of the things we set out to do,” said DDA project manager Jason Thiel. “The obvious discrepancy is the streetscape improvements.”
Various streetscaping improvement initiatives have fallen behind schedule, usually because of funding problems. Arguably the only glaring failure of the plan so far, Thiel promised more attention to streetscaping in the future.
The Downtown Master Plan was hatched in early 1997 when scores of elected officials, bureaucrats and citizens brainstormed and identified several pressing needs for the area. At the end of two years, here is how the various projects are progressing.
Improve pedestrian connections
Phase 1 calls for about $2 million and a half-mile in pedestrian improvements downtown, including five blocks of Laura Street from the Landing to Duval Street. Brick pavers and other landscaping would be added along selected corridors to give them a more inviting and cosmopolitan appeal. Those improvements have not been done. Thiel explained that unlike the Better Jacksonville Plan, which is self-funded with hard target completion dates, the Downtown Master Plan is more of a vision.
“The problem is the funding,” he said of the various streetscape improvements slated for Phase 1. “The plan was approved but never funded.”
Thiel added that the spirit of the plan is that if funding became available for streetscaping, the identified corridors is where is would be spent.
Improve Hemming Plaza
While not complete, the DDA lists its Hemming Plaza improvements as a success. Plans call for $90,000 in landscaping and lighting improvements, which would replace certain lights with vintage style fixtures. Thiel says the money is there and work will begin shortly.
Extend the Northbank Riverwalk
Plans call for a 4,035 ft., $8.9 million Riverwalk extension between the Fuller Warren Bridge and the Landing. But the City hit a snag trying to build a Riverwalk that would eventually extend from Riverside Park to Alltel Stadium. Some land owners are hesitant to hand over their riverfront property for free, which is is what the City has been willing to pay so far.
“That’s been pretty well-documented,” said Thiel. “There isn’t anything I need to add to that.”
One Riverwalk extension project is underway along Coastline Drive from the Landing to Liberty Street. Craig Hagenson, superintendent for project contractor Valley Crest, says the section will be finished by mid to late June, although some tentative adjustments may push back the completion date by as much as a month.
Improve the Cathedral District
The Parks at the Cathedral residences is not technically an element of the Downtown Master Plan, but it plays an important part in carrying out the intent of the plan. After some initial roadblocks in dealing with United Optical, which needed to move its business on Duval Street to make a planned roundabout a reality, scheduled streetscape improvements look promising.
“Those improvements are going to be done in conjunction with the Parks at the Cathedral project,” said Thiel.
Increase the number of downtown pocket parks
The Downtown Master Plan calls for three pocket parks per phase. Since Mayor John Delaney signed the plan into law, two parks have be built downtown, the Ritz Theater park and one at the corner of Broad and Bay streets.
For the third pocket park, Thiel concedes defeat.
“Two out of three is getting close,” he said. “It’s not meeting our measure. Hopefully, we’ll build four more in the next two years.”
Plans for other pocket parks have surfaced in different areas downtown.
First Baptist Church intends to build a public park on the northeast corner of Beaver and Laura streets.
City planners have their eye on a surface parking lot at 325 Main St., across from the site of the new downtown library.
The City tried to muscle ownership of the three-quarter acre lot from the Eunice E. Demery Trust through eminent domain. Property trustee John DeSalvo and business partner Mark Jackson have other ideas for the plot that call for a 12-story mixed use building called The Landmark. The dispute landed in court where Circuit Judge Lawrence Haddock sided with DeSalvo. Delaney’s chief administrative office Sam Mousa said the City will likely continue to pursue the property despite the setback.
Directional changes to select roadways
The plan suggests changing Julia, Ashley, Church and Pearl streets from one-way to two-way streets. Those ideas are still under review and no action was required in Phase 1.
Downtown is dotted with older decaying buildings. Adaptive reuse calls for the renovation and conversion of vacant and dilapidated buildings into new office or residential units. Phase 1 calls for 200,000 square feet of adaptive reuse. Thiel said that number has been met through renovation projects like 11 East Forsyth, the W.A. Knight Building and the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art.
The single determining factor that may eventually determine whether the Downtown Master Plan is a successful and worthwhile endeavor is the resurgence of urban living. Roughly 1,700 residences are in the works for downtown, including ongoing projects such as 11 East Forsyth, Berkman Plaza, Parks at the Cathedral and One Shipyard Place as well as planned projects like 712-unit The Strand on the Southbank.
Phase 1 encompassed the first two years of the plan. Phase 2 extends from years three to five and Phase 3 rounds out years six through 10. By the end of the decade, the plan calls for wholesale improvements to downtown livability through careful planning of future projects.