A Lesson for Downtown Jacksonville

Downtown Houston offers several lessons for Jacksonville.

Lessons for Any Downtown, a recently featured on Nextcity.org offers valuable insight for cities like Jacksonville that continue to talk downtown revitalization after nearly seventy continuous years of trying.

First it identifies a challenge that currently plagues Jacksonville’s revitalization efforts:

A second group of experts, who dealt exclusively with a specific city, saw the future of downtown as a zero-sum game in which they were competing for business and people with other downtowns in the region. Their approach was to subsidize specific players directly, with tax rebates, direct grants, or below-market mortgage loans. However, if that subsidy continues in perpetuity, it cannot be a viable program for improving downtown. Rather, it is a program for purchasing, at taxpayer expense, the downtown presence of one particular set of residents, retailers, businesses, and activities that are deemed worthy of receiving subsidies.

Then it goes on to highlight six key objectives the most recent resurgence of many American downtowns have been built on:

The more recent resurgence of many American downtowns has happened because of public action devised specifically to achieve one of these six objectives, all of which can be of benefit to any downtown at any time:

  • Establishing a distinctive image that identifies the downtown as a special, particularly desirable place;

  • Providing easy access to and convenient circulation within downtown;

  • Creating a public realm with plenty of room for people to pursue the activities for which they go downtown;

  • Sustaining a livable downtown environment that will attract and keep people downtown;

  • Reducing the cost of doing business downtown;

  • Making it easy to alter land uses, remodel existing buildings and build new facilities that meet the changing demands of downtown customers.

You know what can dramatically eliminate the market rate barriers used to justify massive incentives for risky large scale development proposals and demolition of structurally sound publicly owned assets without an economic recovery plan? Structuring deals that possibly donate blighted publicly owned property and vacant buildings to qualified developers committed to immediately coming in and improving distressed properties that will then be immediately returned to the tax rolls.

There’s Nothing New Under The Sun

Retail shops and restaurants adjacent to former department stores converted into corporate offices in Downtown Lakeland.

What’s suggested is nothing new. Other cities have found success in the downtown revitalization game, employing similar strategies. In Lakeland, Maas Brothers (Burdines) and JCPenney decided to close their downtown stores in favor of anchoring a new suburban shopping mall, resulting in the closure of several nearby mom-and-pop businesses. Once the city gained possession of these large vacant retail structures, it aggressively marketed the properties to major local companies in need of office space, attracting them with $1 a year lease deals they could not refuse. Literally overnight, two dead blocks of the city’s core were activated with 900 high salary workers when Publix and Watkins Motor Lines agreed to take them up on the offer, kick starting its urban renaissance that continues today.

In the case of Vestcor, if the DIA donates land, in return 70 market rate for housing units will be constructed immediately and made available for purchase at $250,000. If the units sell for more than $250,000, the city shares in the profits. Quite frankly, if this is all it takes to jump start market rate new construction in downtown, the City of Jacksonville and the DIA should have been donating its blighted and underutilized publicly owned parcels and buildings years ago.

To reduce potential risks, considering most bonafide developers are either accredited or their equity partners are, Request for Proposals (RFP) can be crafted so that only qualified developers can bid by simply restricting bidders to only include accredited investors.

The city owned vacant Snyder Memorial Church

Imagine if a similar stance was taken with the now demolished City Hall Annex Building, Jacksonville Landing, 324 Broad or Snyder Memorial Church. Perhaps the demolished structures would be filled with new uses and contributing to the city’s tax base, while millions spent or earmarked for demolition could have been allocated to addressing other downtown needs such as park enhancements and two-waying streets? When combined with the concept of clustering, complementing uses within a compact setting it basically means the revitalization of the urban core is kick started into maximum gear for a minimal cost to tax payers.

While Vestcor’s latest proposal is interesting and exciting, if COJ really wants to kick downtown redevelopment into high gear, it may be time to inclusively open the excess publicly owned land donation door to all qualified development teams. On the surface, it seems like a perfect example of a smaller intervention that can be used to rapidly reactivate, sustain and energize the city’s downtown core.

Vestcor Companies’ proposed townhouse development in LaVilla

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com