By the 1970s, right off the heels of Axe Handle Saturday, downtown had become a decaying district suffering from many of the same factors that decimated urban cities throughout the United States, such as white flight, racism, and blight.
Mix in a draconian parking meter situation, toll bridges, poor marketing along with new suburban malls and you have a potent combination for ultimate failure.
To stop the hemorrhaging, a new public entity known as the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) was created. Unfortunately, instead of successful revitalization, the DDA would end up assuming the role of a bull with downtown being its own personal china shop. The famed 1971 Downtown Jacksonville Master Plan would be the first of many studies produced by this group that would eventually drive the final nail in the downtown’s retail scene’s coffin. Worst of all, the DDA had no problem spending taxpayer money as if it flowed freely from the land of milk and honey.
Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky, and Lamb (RTKL) of Baltimore. This firm was known for its impressive work on the Charles Center area in downtown Baltimore. RTKL believed downtown revitalization would be most effective by transforming the area into a mall-like environment to help rejuvenate retail sales in an area that had suffered from the competition of new suburban malls like Regency, Gateway, Roosevelt, and Normandy Malls.
A sketch of the 1971 Master Plan from a Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce brochure about downtown revitalization.
THE TRANSPORTATION LOOP SYSTEM
A major part of the plan was to separate vehicular and pedestrian traffic throughout the downtown core. A new loop system was the solution recommended by RKTL. Vehicular traffic would be routed around the heart of the Northbank and in the process, converting the core of downtown into a large pedestrian mall. The Loop system consisted of converting Water, Ocean, Beaver, and Pearl Streets into a one way outer loop, while turning Main, Ashley, Julia, and Bay Streets into the inner loop. Parking garages and surface lots containing at least 5,000 spaces would then be constructed along the loop streets.
A pedestrian street or pedestrian mall is a street where pedestrian traffic is given partial or total priority over all other kinds of traffic. It is a limited form of an auto-free zone. Under the 1971 plan, Hogan between Duval and Bay, Laura between Church and Bay and Duval/Monroe, between Hogan and Laura would have been converted into pedestrian use only. This pedestrian only section of downtown, surrounded by the transportation loops, would be divided into three major sections.
- New Riverfront Center
- Laura / Hogan Axis
- Retail Core Area
This illustration shows the entire plan of the proposed pedestrian mall concept. Many buildings, such as the Snyder Memorial and Knight Lofts would have been demolished for this concept to be fully developed.
With the emphasis on completely separating pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the plan also called for a series of elevated walkways that would stretch from the river to the Cathedral Apartments off of Ocean Street.
1. NEW RIVERFRONT CENTER AREA
The Riverfront Center area would be the southern focal point of the pedestrian mall idea. It would include a riverfront park, Convention Hotel, Exhibition Center, Sears Department Store, and a vertical financial-office complex that would bridge over Bay Street, as shown in the above section graphic.
2. LAURA / HOGAN AXIS
The Laura / Hogan Axis would serve as a retail connector and pedestrian zone between the River Center area, to the South, and the core retail area, that once surrounded Hemming Park. The illustrations above are examples of what this corridor would resemble, when fully built out.
Another major element of the Laura/Hogan Axis was the Atlantic Bank Complex. During this period, the bank had plans to construct new a headquarter tower on the corner of Forsyth and Hogan. Once this tower was completed, the old Atlantic Bank complex would be converted into a retail / entertainment complex, featuring a movie theater complex and retail arcade, inside of the historic Atlantic Bank Tower.
RETAIL CORE AREA
For most of the 20th Century, the area around Hemming Park was the retail core for the entire city. In the 1970s major anchors in this area included Ivey’s, May-Cohens, JCPenney’s, and Purcells. The 1971 plan suggested that Hemming Park should be paved over, forming a central plaza (3) for the pedestrian mall and a transit terminal for JTA buses (5). Similar to Circle City Center in Indianapolis, an enclosed vertical retail galleria mall (1) would connect May-Cohens, Ivey’s, and Purcells with a multi-level parking garage.
Other improvements included in this general area were the expansion of First Baptist Church (2) and landscaping improvements to Block 17 (4).
This illustration gives an idea of how the Retail Galleria would extend over the intersection of Laura and Church Streets.
A view of the Retail Galleria from Church & Main Streets. Notice the elevated courtyard and pedestrian walkway extending from Ivey’s and the Universal Marion Building? Plans called for this walkway to connect the mall to the Cathedral Apartment Towers along Ocean Street.
The 1971 Master Plan also came complete with a scale model of build out, which was anticipated to be completed within 10 to 20 years.
Now looking back, the implementation of the 1971 plan was foreshadowing of common pattern that continues to plague downtown today. While the plan was estimated to be fully complete within 20 years (1991), it never was and its partial implementation can be considered the final nail in the coffin.
HEMMING PARK BECOMES HEMMING PLAZA
Implementation of the 1971 plan was a very slow process. The renovation of Hemming Park into an urban plaza was intended to be the pedestrian mall’s first phase. The the first phase of the plaza was completed in 1978 for $648,000. However, the $2.2 million second phase, which would involve closing streets and changing the traffic directional flow was delayed at the request of retail owners because they did not want construction to disrupt the holiday shopping season.
The money set aside for phase 2, was then diverted to fund a railroad overpass on University Blvd near Phillips Hwy. In 1981, new funds were diverted to fund the widening of 103rd Street.
Construction finally got underway in 1984. Unfortunately several streets were closed during the construction phase and the project dragged on for two years. For retailers who had been struggling for years to stay afloat, already dealing with the parking meter situation, urban blight, and aggressive marketing from suburban malls, the retail core’s three major retailers (May-Cohens, JCPenney, and Ivey’s) all shut down within a few months of each other.
With no major retail anchors and the Landing planned for the waterfront, the 1971 master plan was officially dead.
Several private sector projects were constructed during this era, in accordance with the plan. They included FCCJ, Atlantic Bank (now BB&T), Independent Life (MODIS) and the sheriff’s station on the corner of Liberty and Bay.
Elements of the 1971 plan can still be seen today. The photo above points out a few:
A. Atlantic Bank (BB&T) - the elevated courtyard was supposed to be a part of the elevated walkway system. B. The stop lights and streetlights throughout downtown, come from the 1971 plan. C. This courtyard at the JEA complex (originally Ivey’s Department Store and the Universal Marion Building, was supposed to be a part of the Retail Galleria Mall. D. Today’s building-less Main Street is a direct result of the plan. The plan endorsed using eminent domain to demolish structures along the “Loop” streets, so that surface parking lots and garages could be built in their place.
Not Shown: The Main Street Bridge Ramps: This ramp system was another segment of the “Loop” system.
The test of time has revealed that the 1971 plan had both good and bad components. The good, being the Retail Galleria, which would have connected three existing department stores, similar to popular downtown malls in Norfolk and Indianapolis. The bad, being the loop system, which still diverts vehicular traffic away from the retail core today, as well as confuse the few visiting tourist who do come downtown. Then the ugly, which was the idea of constructing elevated covered walkways throughout the core, as if this community was located in Siberia or the Northpole.
A major flaw in this plan was that it did not directly deal with the negative factors that hindered retail growth in the core, such as parking meters, lack of directional signage and crime, all of which can be summed up as creating a non-user friendly and hostile retail environment.
In any event, this was only the first of several, after 1970, that have combined to form the downtown that exists today.
In 2006, the staff of Metro Jacksonville spent considerable time studying several former plans that have collected dust in the bowels of City Hall over the decades. In an effort to show how much money, time and effort has been wasted over the years with consultant fees and public development ideas, it is our quest to share as much of this information with the general public as possible. The overall goal is to raise public awareness to get to the point where we can move on to addressing the nagging issues that have plagued the core for decades.
This article was originally released by Metro Jacksonville as a part of the Downtown Frankenstein Series on October 12, 2006.