Master Planning: Why a city needs one to protect Florida’s scenic waterfronts

…”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?


The City of St. Petersburg, through the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, envisions a continued legacy of preserved and enhanced open space that is inclusive and offers opportunities for all.

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?


A rendering from the Downtown Savannah 2033 Master Plan

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


A sketch of the 1971 Downtown Master Plan

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


Developer Steve Atkins’ $1.1 billion Riverfront Jacksonville Master Plan proposed for Jacksonville’s Northbank Riverfront

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


A vision for Brevard Street in the draft version of Charlotte’s 2040 Center City Vision Plan

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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“$1.1 billion riverfront master plan proposed for downtown Jacksonville”

“$1.1 billion riverfront master plan proposed for downtown Jacksonville”

Photo: Gallery in Jacksonville Daily Record
“Jacksonville developer Steve Atkins says he wants to lead a nearly $1.1 billion redevelopment of mostly city-owned property, including the former Jacksonville Landing, on a stretch of the Downtown Northbank riverfront.

At an invitation-only event June 1 at the Florida Theatre, Atkins presented his ‘Riverfront Jacksonville’ redevelopment plan for about 25 acres along the St. Johns River.

Atkins, who is SouthEast Development Group LLC managing director, says he will try to persuade the city and Downtown Investment Authority to pay for $536 million in a public-private partnership to build 1.8 million square feet of space from the former Jacksonville Landing to the former Duval County Courthouse and old City Hall site, rebranded in 2020 by DIA as The Ford on Bay.

City buy-in

As of May 28, DIA staff and Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration have seen all of SouthEast’s master plan work, according to Atkins.

It is unclear if city officials are willing to accept Atkins’ request for about $500 million in tax money.

Atkins said Goldman Sachs and Piper Sandler together committed to financing the estimated $1.1 billion upfront if the city agrees to an incentives package to repay its share over time…

With all but 2.5 acres targeted as publicly owned, Atkins also would have to convince city officials to change or integrate taxpayer-backed development plans active on the riverfront…

The city also awarded nearly $375,000 in stipends to three national firms in March for a competition to design a 4.5-acre public park at the former Landing site with a selection expected in October.

The DIA and city have renamed the site Riverfront Plaza. DIA CEO Lori Boyer said a plan to put the remaining land on the market for private development after park construction is underway.

Atkins said SouthEast’s team recognizes the park competition but did not commit to keeping the design selected by the DIA should the city agree to work with him.

‘I’m hoping that some of the best (park) ideas are things that we might be able to collaborate with folks on in this plan,’ Atkins said…

Next steps

A spokesperson for Atkins said SouthEast said in a May 30 email the company plans to formally approach the DIA in July with a development proposal.”

— Mike Mendenhall, Jacksonville Daily Record
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For a gallery of renderings of Riverfront Jacksonville, click here

Legal: “Palm Beach County moves to expand ban on floating structures anchoring in county waters”

Legal: “Palm Beach County moves to expand ban on floating structures anchoring in county waters”

Photo: Allen Eyestone, Palm Beach Post

“…Palm Beach County is one step closer to expanding a local law that bans floating structures from anchoring in county waters, with some exceptions.

If passed, an update to the Cindy DeFilippo Floating Structure Ordinance will apply to floating structures anchoring or mooring in all waters within the county, including those under the jurisdiction of a city or town.

County commissioners will take a final vote on June 15.

A floating structure isn’t a boat or other watercraft, which the state defines as a ‘vessel’ and requires registration.

Rather, it is a ‘floating entity … not primarily used as a means of transportation on water but which serves purposes typically associated with a structure or other improvement to real property,’ according to the state. These can include functions such as a residence, restaurant or clubhouse. ”

— Hannah Morse, Palm Beach Post

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Legal: “New sign code could limit ‘obscene language’ in Punta Gorda”

Legal: “New sign code could limit ‘obscene language’ in Punta Gorda”

Photo: Daniel Sutphin, Sun

“A new Punta Gorda law is in the works that could restrict indecent or obscene language on residential signs and flags — and even a person’s clothes if worn in public places.

‘We get complaints about people putting up — whether it’s a flag or sign or (wearing) apparel, whatever — that has the F word on it,’ said City Council Member Nancy Prafke…

The city began reworking its current sign code in January 2020 due to an abundance of Realtor signs in public areas.

During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, more issues came to light with residential flags and signs, the amount of them, and even the language some featured that could be deemed as offensive.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council approved the first of two readings of the city’s new ‘Sign Standards’ code that would try to control some of these issues…

With the new code, however, the city plans to restrict offensive language, defining it as ‘fighting words,’ ‘indecent speech’ or ‘obscene.’

The City Council also amended the new code to include apparel should a shirt, hat, or other piece of clothing display language in a public place that could be found to be in violation of those definitions.

‘So, when you’re driving down the street and someone has a sign (with offensive language) in their yard,” said City Manager Greg Murray, “that can be enforceable but if it’s inside a place like Fishermen’s Village (it’s not because) you’re on private property.’

Murray went on to say that if a person was wearing an ‘offensive’ shirt in a public place like the city’s Harborwalk along Charlotte Harbor, they would be in violation of the new code.

What are “fighting words?

In the new code, the city defines this as words or graphics which ‘by their very utterance’ have a direct tendency to incite immediate breach of the peace by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.

Fighting words include, but are not limited to, defamatory remarks made to private citizens; and epithets (or labels) based on the person’s race, color, religion, disability, national origin, ethnicity or sex.

What is ‘indecent speech?’

In the new code, the city defines this as language or graphics that depict or describe sexual or excretory activities or organs in a manner that is offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.

What is ‘obscene’ language?

In the new code, the city defines this as language or graphics that depict or describe sex or sexual organs in a manner appealing to, or intended to appeal to, the average viewer or reader’s visceral sexual (prurient) interests, and taken as a whole, lacks any justification from a political, literary, artistic or scientific value.

What is a sign?

In the new code, a ‘sign’ is defined as any device, structure, item, thing, object, fixture, painting, printed material, or visual image using words, graphics, symbols, numbers, or letters designed or used for the purpose of communicating a message or attracting attention.

City Attorney David Levin told the City Council that this definition could ‘arguably include something being worn.’

Mayor Lynne Matthews thought a more clear definition was needed.

‘We should include something specific about apparel of any kind,’ Matthews said. ‘It needs to be added specifically because anything you leave to subjective opinion goes by the wayside.’

What’s next?

The amended ‘Sign Standards’ ordinance still has to come back before the City Council at a future meeting before anything becomes official.

As far as how the new code will be enforced, Assistant City Manager told The Daily Sun that it is currently ‘under staff review.'”

— Daniel Sutphin, Sun

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Leesburg Historic Preservation: “Lee School plan gets planning and zoning blessing for multi-family housing”

Leesburg Historic Preservation: “Lee School plan gets planning and zoning blessing for multi-family housing”

Photo: Cindy Peterson
“…While the main building will stand, other buildings will be razed on the five-acre site, including a large brick building just north of the main building…

Plans meet four city goals and requirements…remove blight, fit in with the city’s Historic District, and be compatible with the Downtown Master Plan and surrounding zoning.

Currently, the rundown buildings are an eyesore and a sometime home for vagrants and homeless people.

The back-and-forth sales and proposals for the old school site are almost as historic as the building, which was erected in 1915.

Former mayor and president of the Leesburg Heritage Society, Sanna Henderson, is onboard with the plan.”

— Frank Stanfield, Daily Commercial
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Legislative Alert: Florida bills could bar local government design review and authority for residential buildings

Legislative Alert: Florida bills could bar local government design review and authority for residential buildings

“One of 1000 Friends’ foundational priorities is to help build better communities in Florida.

But SB 284 /HB 55, entitled Building Design, would take yet another tool away from local governments. This legislation seeks to remove local government authority to regulate building design in many areas, although designated local historic districts, Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) districts, and Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) are exempt.

The bill would:

• Take away the authority of local governments to work with citizens to protect the character of certain neighborhoods and districts important to the community’s character.

• Undermine local economic development efforts that capitalize on the unique character of distinctive areas in the community.

• Remove the ability of neighborhoods and local governments to promote neighborhood reinvestment through maintaining neighborhood character.”

— 1000 Friends of Florida

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