Black urban core neighborhoods seek historic designation

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure to the Eastside Historic District, the Debs Store is currently be rehabilitated into a grocery store and financial services hub.

One major trend to watch in 2024 is historic Black neighborhoods in the urban core that are taking advantage of designation on the National Register of Historic Places as a means to support revitalization without the displacement and other negative impacts brought on by gentrification – in other words, the process of withintrification. Durkee Gardens in the Durkeeville neighborhood northwest of Downtown became Jacksonville’s first Black historic district in 2020, and this was followed by the Eastside Historic District in late 2023. The Eastside in particular has become a template for withintrification and community-driven investment, and now other Black neighborhoods across Jacksonville’s Urban Core are alao looking into becoming National Register districts, including LaVilla and North Riverside.

A National Register listing comes with a number of benefits. Most importantly, it allows owners of contributing properties to apply for all manner of grants for preservation and revitalization projects, alleviating the cost burden of maintaining historic buildings. It also allows neighborhoods to share resources and strategies with the wider network of listed districts and structures.

A National Register district differs from a local historic district, as Jacksonville has in Springfield, Riverside and Avondale. The key difference is that it doesn’t impart protections and restrictions on the contributing properties in the way that local historic districts do. For example, in Riverside or Springfield, owners of contributing structures must follow specific guidelines when working on their buildings, such as ensuring the materials and facade design adhere to the historic use of the structure, which can add cost and logistical difficulty to restoration projects. In a National Register district, however, owners can alter or update their structures freely, removing one major hurdle to revitalization in distressed neighborhoods. They also can be used as a launching pad for zoning modifications to help preserve cultural heritage, existing building stock and affordable housing, all of which slows down the negatives of gentrification.

The year of Downtown public spaces

A construction view of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park and the Emerald Trail’s LaVilla Link.

The stars are aligned for 2024 to be the year of the downtown park, as several high profile public park projects are expected to finally open over the next few months.

In a few weeks, the LaVilla Link, the first segment of Groundwork Jacksonville’s ambitious Emerald Trail system, will open to the general public. Originally anticipated to be completed in 2022, the LaVilla Link will connect the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and LaVilla with the S-Line Urban Greenway Trail in New Town. This $4 million, 1.3-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail will serve as the “Model Mile” for the proposed 30-mile Emerald Trail network.

Directly connected to the LaVilla Link, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park is under construction at the intersection of Lee and West Adams streets in LaVilla. A project of the city of Jacksonville’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, the park is being built on the birth site of the late brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Here, the brothers wrote and composed the stirring hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, in 1900. The park is expected to be completed in mid-2024.

Another long-delayed project, Friendship Fountain, Park, is expected to open to the public in 2024 as well. Originally designed by architect Taylor Hardwick and dating back to 1965, Friendship Fountain was once the highest-shooting fountain in Florida. In 2019, the Downtown Investment Authority announced a $6 million plan to convert the fountain and surrounding park into a state-of-the-art destination for water and light/sound shows. Closed since 2021, it was originally expected to be finished by early 2022, but it’s operated only sporadically for nearly two years due to ongoing delays. Work restarted in late 2023, and the city is now targeting a February 2024 reopening.

The opening of these three high-profile projects will attract thousands to Downtown over the next few months. A fourth, Riverfront Plaza, won’t be completed this year but should make considerable progress over the next twelve months. The status of the former Jacksonville Landing site has been a sore spot for Downtown advocates, including us at The Jaxson, since the city took possession of the property in 2019 and subsequently demolished the festival marketplace. Despite announced plans for redevelopment, the space sat as an empty lot popularly known as “Lenny’s Lawn” or the “Lawnding” for the next four years. Moving the park project forward has been a major initiative of Mayor Donna Deegan, and work on Phase I began in earnest in the second half of 2023 and has continued apace since.

Phase I is expected to take two years to complete. The work centers on rerouting Independent Drive to increase the size of the park, and the phase will continue with the reconstruction of the bulkhead and Northbank Riverwalk and the creation of a pedestrian plaza at the intersection of Hogan Street and Independent Drive. This and subsequent phases will include attractions such as curving walkways, native landscaping, a multipurpose lawn, water play area and a café with a roof-mounted playground.