Design guidelines come to LaVilla

LaVilla’s Broad Street business district in the early 20th century.

Jacksonville’s oldest Gullah Geechee neighborhood, LaVilla was established in 1866 when Francis F. L’Engle, a prominent local attorney, then subdivided the former LaVilla plantation and provided 99-year leases to 41 freedmen immediately following the end of the Civil War. Growing rapidly, LaVilla was home to thousands by 1880, as the emancipated enslaved and immigrants arriving in North Florida found the community attractive due to its inexpensive housing and proximity to employment. An early regional ragtime, blues and jazz Chitlin Circuit destination, LaVilla became home to a diverse population, red light district, entertainment scene with a distinct sense of place, dramatically different from the rest of present day Jacksonville. As illustrated in historic photography, Ashley and Davis Streets emerged as mixed use entertainment oriented corridors, Broad Street as the city’s premier Black business strip, Ward (Houston) Street into a red light district, and West Forsyth and Bay Streets as mixed-use, mulitcultural wholesale districts of their own. A large collection of residential structures comprised of vernacular and Afrocentric inspired architectural styles and features, fused these corridors together into a single entity, the community of LaVilla. While revitalization has been long desired, the recent development trend has treated the district as being a blank slate, leading to a proliferation of bland and historically incompatible infill development.

This 1970s photograph captures a row of aging buildings that were originally constructed as brothels along LaVilla’s Houston Street. (State Archives of Florida)

Historically downtown, its districts and the adjacent neighborhoods all have a unique sense of place that can not be replicated today. It is pretty difficult to confuse the Northbank architecturally with the Southbank. The same can be applied when comparing LaVilla, Brooklyn or the Cathedral District. Unfortunately, in recent years, the core has been inundated with cookie cutter infill architecture, destroying and ripping apart the unique atmosphere that make these older sections of the city a special place. By the end of 2021, this may no longer be a problem. The Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) has hired a consultant (GAI Consultants) to update the Business Investment and Development Plan for Downtown. The update includes the following:

— Revision of existing incentive programs and creation of new incentive programs to better meet current market conditions and further the mission of the DIA.

— Creation of a master park plan for Downtown.

— Creation of a branding plan for each of the Downtown Districts identified in the zoning overlay.

— Update of Downtown Design guidelines to refine and conform to the recently adopted zoning overlay.

The final deliverable is envisioned to include a highly illustrative version of the “Downtown Master Plan” that can be distributed to the public and the development community. The anticipated timeline for City Council approval would take place before the end of this fiscal year (September 30, 2021).

The era of soul-less architectural facades being proposed for new infill development in Downtown’s districts could come to an end with development guidelines and recommendations that help guide the private sector projects to a desired stylistic outcome.

Of interesting note, the District Branding initiative aims to create a set of Downtown Brand Guidelines that includes a brand identity, position and plan to launch a distinctive brand for Downtown Jacksonville as well as the six districts we’ve highlighted (Brooklyn, LaVilla, Central Core, Church, Cathedral and Southbank). The brand elements developed will guide DIA and City short-, mid- and long-term planning, direct decision-making and resources toward a clearly defined vision for the preferred architecture, artistic expressions, placemaking, landscape elements and marketing materials all reflective of identity, image, personality, essence or soul, character, culture and history of each unique District as well as Downtown overall.

New and old in LaVilla today.