The Tear Down Mayor?
The Jacksonville Landing meeting its fate in November 2019.
On February 22, 2021, after Mayor Lenny Curry hosted a meeting of local business leaders to discuss Downtown projects, Jim Piggott of News4Jax asked the mayor what he thought of his burgeoning reputation as the “Tear Down Mayor,” or as we prefer, “Demo Lenny”. Curry rejected that idea, pointing out that “things have happened downtown” during his six years in office. But what do the facts say?
The new JEA headquarters is one of the few construction projects to move forward during Mayor Curry’s tenure.
New Downtown construction has been limited during Mayor Curry’s term. In the Northbank – the city’s historic Downtown core – the list includes:
- The new JEA headquarters, a $68 million project, broke ground at the corner of Pearl and West Adams Streets in 2020.
- Ashley Square, a $15 million, 120 unit affordable housing development geared for seniors in the Cathedral District, broke ground in 2021.
- Ashley Street container apartments, a $1.52 million, three-story apartment structure made of shipping containers, began in 2020, also in the Cathedral District.
Several other projects are proposed but have yet to break ground, meaning Jaxsons would be wise not to take them for granted. The slow pace is not unique to Curry’s term; in fact there’s been little new construction in the Northbank for more than a decade. Curry can also point to several completed or ongoing new construction projects in the outer districts officially lumped in as part of Downtown. There have been a number of projects in Brooklyn, LaVilla and the Southbank, as well as Daily’s Place and the Jaguars practice field in the Stadium District.
These projects are good for their areas, but being in some cases more than a mile from the Northbank Core (and for the Southbank, across the river), they don’t do much for walkability and vibrancy there. As we’ve written, vibrancy relies on the “Three C’s”: the clustering of complementing uses in a compact setting. As anyone who’s been Downtown at night can attest, even good projects don’t move the needle when they’re spread out over miles.
The lot where the City Hall Annex once stood in February 2021.
While new construction is at a trickle, demolitions of existing structures have… exploded (sorry) during Curry’s term. Some have been by private owners but the biggest ones have been the work of Curry’s administration. While Curry’s defenders on Twitter claimed these demolitions are positives moves necessary for attracting new construction, the reality is that the spaces have sat empty and there are no firm plans to change that.
City Hall Annex
After the last tenants moved out in 2017, the Curry administration did not explore any options for renovating or selling the historic mid-century modern City Hall Annex on Bay Street, and instead moved forward with razing it. The building was imploded in January 2019 as part of an $8 million project to remove it and the adjacent former courthouse building for development.
This demolition demonstrated the risks of tearing down a building without a concrete replacement. Initially, the city stated the space would be used for a new convention center, going so far as to solicit bids with an RFP (request for proposal). Curry scrapped this idea when Jaguars owner Shad Kahn expressed interest in building a convention center elsewhere, and ultimately the whole idea of a convention center was put on ice.
Regardless, the city pressed forward with demolition, and later in 2019 announced that it would take bids for redeveloping the vacant lots. This brought in two proposals, but more than two years after demolition and four years after the building was vacated, the City Hall Annex site remains a muddy lot with no firm plans for redevelopment.
Like the City Hall Annex across the street, Mayor Curry never explored options for reusing the old Courthouse building, and instead rushed to demolish it for the convention center project that never came to fruition. Though deemed obsolete, the double-reinforced concrete building proved difficult to raze. The contractor required extending the demolition deadline by months to remove the structure. As with the City Hall Annex, the space is now a muddy lot with an unclear future.
*“Lenny’s Lawn,” former site of the Jacksonville Landing.
The most controversial demolition of Curry’s tenure wrapped up in January 2020 when the Jacksonville Landing officially became Lenny’s Lawn. The Landing was at its lowest point when the city bought it in February 2019, but it still was home to 30 small businesses and the only cluster of venues in Downtown open on nights and weekends. All were evicted by that July.
Critics of the mayor’s plan, us included, noted early on that it would be years if not decades before anything more than a grass field would replace the Landing. We argued for adaptive reuse of the Landing buildings, or parts of them, as a way to avoid turning this crucial site into a dead space for the foreseeable future. We skeptical killjoys were soundly ignored as the mayor froze the public out of the decision making, but more than two years later, our fears have come to pass. As with the other problematic demolitions above, Lenny’s Lawn is still a grass field with no firm plans for a replacement.
Liberty Street reconstruction
This one needs to be included for showing how expensive and onerous demolition can be. The project to remove an above-water parking deck and repair the adjacent streets spanned the entirety of Curry’s term. Liberty Street was first closed off in 2012 when part of it collapsed into the river; in 2015 Curry made hay of this state of affairs in his campaign against incumbent mayor Alvin Brown. Originally expected to take 30 months, the reconstruction project commenced shortly after Curry took office. However, it faced numerous delays and cost overruns; six years and more than $31 million later, the project finally wrapped up and the streets reopened in December 2020.
A comparison of the Northbank’s new construction and demolitions suggests that Curry’s reputation as the “Tear Down Mayor” is well founded. Yet there’s one area where he can count a number of successes: the adaptive reuse of buildings that are still standing.
Next page: Adaptive reuse in Downtown Jacksonville