…”Jacksonville has long approached downtown development in a secretive and piecemeal fashion, and over the last few weeks this has resulted in several different groups offering up competing plans for parts of the city center.
It’s time for Jacksonville to create something many cities with successfully revived Downtowns have done: create a comprehensive, strategic, publicly vetted Downtown master plan.
What would a Downtown master plan do?
Essentially, a Downtown master plan is simply a long-term guide for future planning and development. Very many cities have master plans for their downtowns, from Atlanta, Georgia to Erie, Pennsylvania and everywhere in between. One of Jacksonville’s peer cities, Oklahoma City, has seen a tremendous impact from its elaborate plans, both inside and outside Downtown.
Common elements of master plans include:
– Defining public, semiprivate, and private amenities Downtown
– Laying out the concrete, longterm vision for key public sites and amenities
– Determining areas to cluster complementing uses in a compact setting
– Identifying primary streets (high traffic commercial corridors) versus secondary or service streets
– Identifying locations and timelines for public amenities that may spark private development
– Creating an implementation schedule for moving development phases forward.
– Community outreach and engagement to ensure the stated vision matches the vision of citizens.
A master plan should not dictate what takes place on private property; instead it should focus on public amenities and making sure land use policies and zoning are set up so that private owners can achieve their property’s fullest potential. In general, a Downtown master plan allows a city to guide development over time, instead of just putting a library here and a museum there like a SimCity player who just got the game and hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.
Why don’t we have one?
According to the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA), we do. They have referred to the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Plan released in 2015 as the city’s “Downtown master plan”. As DIA CEO Lori Boyer told the Jacksonville Daily Record in February 2021, “In recent months we have repeatedly heard from members of the public and in the media that there is no master plan for Downtown and we are simply looking at projects piecemeal… In fact there is.”
The Jaxson argues that the 2015 CRA Plan is not a true master plan. Or at least if is, it’s a bad one. The CRA Plan is a decent start with a lot of positive features, but just doesn’t have many elements that absolutely should be in any true, effective, comprehensive master plan. For example, a master plan should show the community’s intention and vision for publicly owned properties. If Downtown Jacksonville is going to have a new convention center, the master plan should specify the site, how it will be funded and the timeline for its construction. If Amtrak and passenger rail is going to return to the Prime Osborn, the master plan should estimate when it will happen and how much it will cost so that those developing nearby blocks can coordinate their efforts. The CRA plan doesn’t do this.
The DIA has contracted consulting firm GAI (no relation) to draft a broader plan for Downtown to be released later this year, which is apparently an update to the 2015 CRA Plan. It’s not clear what it will include, but some signs are encouraging; for instance it will encourage more sidewalk dining and restaurants. Other signs are… less encouraging. For example, one significant element of the plan is rebranding effort for Downtown neighborhoods. The city got an early taste of how that’s going recently when DIA released their survey proposing, among other things, to rename Downtown’s Northbank and Southbank with goofy marketing-speak names, “NoCo” and “SoBa.” Jaxsons on social media gave that one a fat No-Go.
But whatever this plan includes, if it doesn’t include, for instance, the longterm vision for key catalytic public sites, including along LaVilla’s long overlooked historic Broad Street corridor, we are in fact looking at projects piecemeal. That means Downtown will remain in the dark when it comes to leveraging the private sector, gaining public support and encouraging certain types of uses in key locations. In other words, it’s still not a true master plan.
Jacksonville’s past experience with plans
Jacksonville is no stranger to plans of various kinds. The city adopted a Downtown master plan in 1971, though it didn’t follow up on most of the recommendations, and the piecemeal approach it took just made the situation worse. In 1987, this was followed by the Downtown initial action plan. In the plan, KBJ Architects noted that “All too often plans for downtown are just that. They ignore the political, financial or market realities of downtown and end up on the shelf ignored.” You know where this is going: that plan also ended up on the shelf, largely ignored. In 2000, Mayor John Delaney sponsored Celebrating the River: A Plan for Downtown Jacksonville, with updates to the previous unrealized plans. His successor Mayor John Peyton embraced this plan, but then, nothing. It wasn’t followed and ended up on the shelf.
Other plans include the Mobility Plan and a forthcoming bike master plan, and numerous studies commissioned by various public and private entities. It’s totally reasonable for Jaxsons to be skeptical of another plan or study. But other cities’ experiences prove that a good master plan, when well designed and followed up upon really can have positive effects. It’s a matter of devising a good plan and then seeing it through over the years.
And anyway, the track record for not having or following a plan isn’t any better.
No plan means a whole lot of contradictory plans
One result of the lack of a master plan for Downtown Jacksonville is that, as interest in redevelopment heats up, various groups have launched their own. In the last few months alone, Steve Atkins’ SouthEast Development Group, Shad Khan and the Jaguars, advocacy group Riverfront Parks Now, the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund have all announced, completed or happen to be in the stage of working on various visions for parts of Downtown. And in addition to the DIA’s work on the updated CRA plan, the agency is also wrapping up a design competition for the future of Lenny’s Lawn – sorry, Riverfront Park – to replace the old Jacksonville Landing.
The problem with this is obvious. We now have an array of competing plans and visions that don’t jive with each other and are unlikely to match whatever DIA is working on. The DIA may not feel it’s looking at projects piecemeal, but everyone else certainly is. And that’s not their fault; they’re working without a publicly accessible master plan. This is the peril of not working with what you already have. Redevelopment becomes a lot easier, less time consuming and far more affordable when looking at the entire downtown area holistically, understanding what we can and can’t do with certain spaces and then coordinating adaptive reuse and infill projects within those parameters and guidelines. These are certain elements of a master planning process that the existing CRA plan largely lacked.
As we’ve argued before, the lack of a comprehensive, strategic, publicly vetted master plan continues to hold Downtown Jacksonville back. The city government has acquired a reputation for making big decisions behind closed doors and keeping the public out of the decision making. When decisions are made in bubbles like that, they don’t get vetted or exposed to other potential solutions and better ideas. And the citizens footing the bill don’t get a chance to say what they really want to see in their Downtown.
Where we go from here
The DIA should take the opportunity provided by the CRA plan update to really get things right. They should make sure the plan includes elements from Downtown master plans in other cities that have successfully revitalized. In doing this, it’s absolutely crucial that they bring the public in before, not after, the plan is developed. It can’t be just a panel of preselected “stakeholders” or an online survey. Think about it this way: if there had been public input on the Downtown branding project, terrible names like “NoCo” and “SoBa” would have been shot down before being released in the wild only to be torn apart.
Let’s do the right thing here: let’s give Downtown Jacksonville the comprehensive, strategic, publicly vetted master plan we’ve always needed but never had – and stick to it.
Bill Delaney and Ennis Davis, AICP, Editorial in The Jaxson Mag
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