Study offers plan for the redevelopment of LaVilla neighborhood

Joint-DIA/JTA effort emphasizes mid-market residential and culturally significant urban spaces.

The historic Ritz Theater at 829 N Davis St. in LaVilla neighborhood Downtown.
The historic Ritz Theater at 829 N Davis St. in LaVilla neighborhood Downtown.
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The Downtown Investment Authority and Jacksonville Transportation Authority released its final report Friday on plans to redevelop the city’s historic LaVilla district.

The vision emphasizes returning a major residential component to LaVilla, with a mix of workforce and senior housing on top of midmarket for-purchase townhomes and market-rate rentals.

The study, conducted by consulting firm GAI’s Community Solutions Group, builds the residential components around an expansion of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park — dedicated to Jacksonville Native and Harlem Renaissance-era composer J. Rosamond Johnson — and a new Arts Gateway Park and a Heritage Trail.

Along with cultural components along the route honoring the area’s black history, the trail will connect LaVilla to the city’s other investments on the St. Johns River.

The report Friday follows the last of four public meetings.

Nearly 60 neighborhood stakeholders and city leaders filled the Ritz Theatre and Museum on Thursday to hear the LaVilla Neighborhood Development Strategy study — an eight-month joint project between the DIA and JTA to revitalize the neighborhood.

A Heritage Trail runs through LaVilla near Downtown Jacksonville in this rendering from a report released by the Downtown Investment Authority and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority on the future of the historic neighborhood.
A Heritage Trail runs through LaVilla near Downtown Jacksonville in this rendering from a report released by the Downtown Investment Authority and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority on the future of the historic neighborhood.

DIA and JTA officials said Thursday the abundance of publicly owned property in LaVilla, along with accessibility to the surrounding area by the $53.7 million Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center slated to open in the neighborhood in early 2020, makes fast-tracking development more viable.

LaVilla, once called the Harlem of the South, was a sanctuary for black culture and commerce in the post-Civil War era. The oldest suburb of Jacksonville, LaVilla once its own incorporated community, operated with autonomy from the rest of Jacksonville in the late-1800s with many black business owners, churches, schools and associations.

The post-World War II era and the late 20th century saw a decline in LaVilla’s influence as many of its historic homes and buildings were demolished.

Brian Hughes, DIA interim CEO and Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of staff, said the public meeting process, which began Sept. 4, quickly made clear any redevelopment in LaVilla needed to honor and incorporate the cultural significance of the Downtown district.

As the DIA prepares to issue requests for proposals for the development strategy’s priority projects, Hughes said key criteria for awarding a contract will be an understanding of those cultural and historical elements.

“In a process where we encourage developers to come in, they have to demonstrate they understand what this road map is talking about,” he said after the Thursday presentation.

“It involves smart residential — residential that takes into consideration the public space that’s going to be integral because it will be part of this cultural history the neighborhood celebrates,” Hughes said.

“The developers, as they go through the process, they have a willingness and attention to making everything in this study a priority of what they plan to do,” he said.

Hughes anticipates the DIA will begin discussions within the next two months on bringing in private investment for the project. The DIA board’s next meeting is May 15.

DIA staff said the full study and master plan will be made available online at

First steps

The initial investment will be along Union and Beaver streets with residential development, as well as the urban park space.

GIA consultant Blake Drury, who gave the bulk of Thursday’s presentation, said the visibility of the area will “send a signal” about the city’s push for investment in the LaVilla.

“We think that the real key for this part of the neighborhood is getting activity and getting residents in this location,” Drury said.

“It can really create some 18 to 24-hour life in this part of the neighborhood,” he said.

According to the report, the total project timeline lists some multifamily residential, a Water Street road diet, townhome development and the seven segments of the Heritage Trail as estimated for completion from 2021-23.

Nearly 60 neighborhood stakeholders and city leaders filled the Ritz Theatre and Museum on Thursday to hear the results of the LaVilla study.
Nearly 60 neighborhood stakeholders and city leaders filled the Ritz Theatre and Museum on Thursday to hear the results of the LaVilla study.

The larger project includes student housing for Florida State College at Jacksonville, more multifamily, mixed use and office properties by 2033.

The master plan presented Thursday focuses on five areas the DIA considers to be priorities in the first phase of revitalization efforts.

•  The 285-unit, five- to six-story Arts Gateway Apartments would be market-rate multifamily rental. DIA thinks the residential complex would benefit from development of the adjacent Gateway Park and FSCJ.

•  Park Block Residential would take advantage of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park to introduce two housing scenarios: 32 townhome units and a 270-unit, five- to six-story multifamily residential project wrapped with a parking garage.

The report states that while the $400,000 per unit price for townhomes could price out much of the existing market, one of the goals is to bring market-rate, middle-density, single-family homes to LaVilla — what the consultants are calling “the mission middle.”

“We think the city is positioned with its land ownership to be able to do that,” Drury said.

“How do we get, not only a range of densities, but also a range of ownership models, so not everybody in the neighborhood rents here. We’re firm believers that folks who own their homes have a different view and a different stake in the neighborhood.”

•  The LaVilla Heritage Trail: DIA planners believe, even without other development, the trail would benefit greater Jacksonville by improving the city’s walking and cycling infrastructure Downtown.

•  A Water Street road diet would reduce the thoroughfare from five to three lanes and add a cycle track on the north side of the street to at least Pearl Street. Planners say this would create a better connection to the St. Johns River and would provide the safest route avoiding the Acosta Bridge ramps.

•  Scattered-site for-sale infill would develop 50 townhomes on city-owned parcels “significantly below” market cost. The proposal keeps the property in a land trust with a 99-year lease to control land value and cost. The DIA said this component would need an initial construction subsidy to control costs, suggesting portions of proceeds from the sale of city-owned property in the neighborhood could be earmarked for that purpose.

More long-term proposals include an “Innovation Campus,” for FSCJ.

Community and cultural barometer

Hughes said Thursday he has seen lowering anxiety from the community, but for some, questions remain.

Northwest Citizens Planning Advisory Committee Chair Tyrona Clark-Murray asked if project planners considered how local social services like the Trinity Rescue Mission and Salvation Army would fit in with the proposed market-rate development and urban communal spaces.

Drury said his group hasn’t taken a stance that those shelters need to be relocated.

“I think the social services that happen in Downtown and adjacent to LaVilla create an issue for development, mainly because the neighborhood is undeveloped,” Drury said. “The things that you see, because there’s not a lot of other activity, they loom very large.

Drury said he thinks the mission and Salvation Army “can co-exist a block or two away from the new development. But we have to do the new development right.

“We think that as there are more people in the neighborhood, those services will become something that is just a part of life. As they decide where they need to locate, that can happen together with a development plan.”

Leo Dennis grew up in LaVilla and his father opened Leo’s Dry Cleaners in 1953 near the Ritz Theatre.

He told DIA and JTA representatives Thursday he thought it was important for developers to consider minority and black contractors for the projects.

Hughes said the city would engage its Small and Emerging Business Program in LaVilla, which is designed to connect smaller local contractors with the development projects.

Dennis said it was black-owned businesses working with other black-owned businesses that made the pre-WWII LaVilla a thriving neighborhood.

“Businesses did businesses with each other. The food was fantastic, and there was a sense of community,” he said.

“I was hoping to hear that it wouldn’t be status quo when the city started its redevelopment,” Dennis said.

Who will pay for the revitalization?

Public funding options are necessary to start the DIA’s LaVilla plan, the consultant said.

The plan lists 10 public funding sources from five city and state agencies.

The study proposes Northside West Redevelopment Trust Fund and city general fund financing for the five priority projects.

General funds could expire as the property tax base builds and tax increment financing becomes available.

DIA and JTA also are requesting donation of city-owned land for the Arts Gateway Apartments and park, Park Block Residential and the scattered site for-sale infill.

The plan calls for funding from the city’s capital improvement projects fund for the Heritage Trail and changes to Water Street, and local officials will ask the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization to providing funding - both block grant and alternative program funding - to those components.

DIA and JTA also will ask the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for financial assistance in LaVilla from its Recreational Development Assistance Program and Land and Water Conservation Fund in development of the Arts Gateway Apartments and park, as well as money from its recreational trails program for Heritage Trail.

They also hope for funding for Heritage Trail from the Florida Department of State’s Special Category Historic Funding.



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