by Max Marbut
You know it must be close to Christmas because there are some people who are making quite a “wish list” for Downtown.
Terry Lorince, executive director of Downtown Vision, Inc., hosted a trolley tour of the Northbank and Southbank Friday for the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission’s Retail Task Force. Those along for the ride included St. Johns Town Center developer and task force Chairman Ben Carter, Lat Purser & Associates Executive Vice President Geneva Henderson and task force member and Landing owner Toney Sleiman.
As the tour went past The Strand and The Peninsula, Lorince pointed out that the Southbank condominiums are selling fast because, according to market research, the location makes it convenient for residents to walk to good restaurants and that many of the units are being purchased by retirees who currently live in small coastal towns on the eastern seaboard.
“They’re bored and they want to live in the city,” said Lorince.
Sleiman said he and two partners have leased the land around the Kings Avenue parking garage and plan to build two hotels, 260 apartment units and 35,000 square feet of retail space.
“The good news is there is plenty of parking,” said Sleiman. “I’ve never been able to say that in San Marco or Downtown.”
The group also toured East Bay Street. Lorince said the block between Liberty and Market Streets is now fully occupied with condominium development, bars and businesses.
“This should be the entertainment district,” commented Carter, who suggested that at night and on weekends the street could be closed to vehicles and a stage placed in the middle of the street for a live band.
“People would flock here,” he said.
Carter also proposed that after the County Courthouse is vacated, the sidewalk on the south side of Bay Street could be expanded to make room for extra seating for restaurants that might be located across the street.
As for Metropolitan Park, Lorince said a plan is being considered to move events like the annual World of Nations celebration to Hemming Plaza and Laura Street to bring more people into Downtown’s current retail zone.
Carter said he would like to see an aircraft carrier or a submarine berthed near Alltel Stadium that could anchor a Naval museum or a natural sciences museum. He also suggested building a wharf from Metropolitan Park to the Landing to serve as a “riverfront special events platform.”
Some of Carter’s ideas for Hemming Plaza included removing the fixed tables and chairs and replacing them with movable tables and umbrellas that, combined with a stage for entertainment ranging from the symphony to high school bands, would create an outdoor dining experience with food catered by five-star restaurants. It would also be a great place for Santa Claus during the holiday season as well as an ice-skating rink, he said.
As the tour went past the future site of the park on Main Street across from the Main Library, Carter said he thinks the area would be better suited for high-density retail and suggested that as many as 400,000 square feet of space could be built in the area.
Another idea that came out of the tour was the formation of a real estate brokerage concern that would specialize in Downtown retail space.
“We have a product here that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Lorince.
Lindsey Ballas, targeted industries coordinator for the JEDC and the staff lead for the Retail Task Force, said the findings of four task forces (retail, open space and pedestrian experience, residential and infrastructure) will be consolidated into an action plan that will be presented to the JEDC’s Downtown committee.