Myth 1: It’s easier to develop an empty lot than adapt an existing building

Reality: The vast majority of new Downtown projects go into existing buildings, while new construction is at a trickle in the Northbank.

VyStar Credit Union’s headquarters, an example of successful adaptive reuse of existing buildings. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Bread & Board Provisions on the ground floor of VyStar’s headquarters is an example of reactivation of an existing storefront space. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

See also: Why Preservation, Not Demolition, Has Worked Downtown

City officials and private property owners alike cite this myth most often as a justification for tearing something down. It’s one of those things that sounds reasonable on the surface, but a closer look shows it doesn’t jibe with the reality in Downtown Jacksonville at all. In fact, a wide majority of Downtown’s successful new developments, particularly in the Northbank core, have been adaptive reuse projects that renovate buildings that already exist. Of the totally new construction projects currently moving forward, all but a few are in the outskirts of Downtown in Brooklyn, LaVilla, and the Southbank. Meanwhile, Downtown’s ample supply of empty lots continues to sit empty (more on that under Myth 2).

Estrella Cocina is a new rooftop restaurant and bar at VyStar Credit Union’s new downtown headquarters. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

After City Council and the Downtown Investment Authority authorized new incentives for historic preservation in 2020, even more adaptive reuse projects have come online, including the Central Fire Station, the Old Independent Life Building, and several projects on the Ambassador Hotel Block. By the end of 2021, more than a dozen major projects that renovate or incorporate existing buildings are moving forward within three blocks of James Weldon Johnson Park alone. If the myth were true, we’d be seeing the opposite.

The restoration of the former Ambassador Hotel into a boutique hotel. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

The restoration of the former Independent Life building into a mixed-use development. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

The restoration of the Florida Baptist Convention building into a mixed-use development. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Myth 2: Demolishing a building makes way for new investment

Reality: Downtown Jacksonville already has more empty lots than existing buildings, and new construction isn’t rushing in.

The site of the Jacksonville Landing is still a grass field nearly three years after the city took it over. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

See also: So, Jax may be the only city to demolish its Landing

Related to Myth 1, we at The Jaxson call this the Godzilla strategy of urban development. The idea is that old buildings are fundamentally inadequate for the needs of the future, so we’re better off leveling them like a kaiju. Unfortunately, the strategy simply doesn’t work. The various empty grass fields around Downtown Jacksonville are proof that simply razing an old building doesn’t guarantee that something new and better will replace it anytime soon.

This is the strategy that led to the razing of LaVilla in the early 1990s. Thirty years later, the neighborhood is only now starting to fill back in with new construction. In the Northbank, the core of Downtown, the private sector hasn’t completed any new construction since the former Suntrust Tower garage in 2014. In fact, other than parking garages, there has been no private development in the Northbank that didn’t involve some adaptive reuse since the Adams Mark Hotel (now the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront) and Berman Plaza developments in 2001. Even among government buildings, the new JEA headquarters building at Adams and Pearl Streets is the first new construction since the Duval County Courthouse finally wrapped up in 2012.

But the best recent example of how poorly the Godzilla strategy jibes with reality is the former Jacksonville Landing site, better known as Lenny’s Lawn. As The Jaxson predicted when the city first announced it would buy and raze the festival marketplace in early 2019, the site is still a grass field nearly three years later. The replacement plan may not be coming until at least 2026, if it ever happens, and the cost could exceed $40 million. Similarly, the sites of the old Courthouse and City Hall Annex have laid vacant since early 2019, with no replacement on the horizon.

Myth 3: 10,000 new residents will revitalize Downtown Jacksonville

Reality: 10,000 people spread all over Downtown Jacksonville’s massive 3.9 square mile area wouldn’t provide the density needed for true vibrancy.

The .5 square mile Northbank within the overlarge 3.9 square mile area of Downtown Jacksonville. Even at 10,000 residents, Downtown would still have a low population density. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

See also: Will 10k residents really revitalize Downtown Jax?

Downtown advocates have long used 10,000 residents as a benchmark for the population Downtown Jacksonville needs to achieve vibrancy. Don’t get us wrong, it would be great to get 10,000 people living downtown, but if we expect things to liven up considerably once we hit that number, we’re very likely to be disappointed. The issue is that 10,000 people, if they’re just spread out all across Downtown instead of concentrated together, won’t generate the population density necessary to generate vibrancy on its own.

That’s because the area officially considered “Downtown” is massive. While most of Jacksonville’s peer cities have downtowns that are 1 or 2 square miles, Jacksonville’s is a whopping 3.9 square miles, encompassing not only the Northbank core but the formerly separate neighborhoods of LaVilla, the Southbank, the Sports & Entertainment District and Brooklyn. Some of those areas are miles apart and not walkable to one another, meaning that new residents in, say, Brooklyn won’t necessarily contribute to vibrancy on the ground in the Sports & Entertainment District.

The 10,000 residents goal has been promoted as gospel by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and other groups. However, it’s unclear where the number came from. My father, former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, describes it as “folk wisdom” and believes the number would have to be far higher to achieve the desired level of activity. A comparison with other cities suggests he’s right. With a population of about 4,800, Downtown Jacksonville presently has a population density of 1,231 residents per square mile, very low for an urban area. If the population grew to 10,000, density would rise to 2,564 people per square mile. Sounds better, right? Well, look at some of Jacksonville’s peer cities:

  • Downtown Tampa:
  • Size: 1.2 square miles
  • Population: 8,152
  • Population density: 6,793 people per square mile

  • Downtown Orlando:
  • Size: 2.6 square miles
  • Population: 16,718
  • Population density: 6,430 people per square mile

  • Downtown Charlotte:
  • Size: 2.14 square miles:
  • Population: 30,000
  • Population density: 14,019 people per square mile

  • Indianapolis “Mile Square”
  • Size: 1 square mile
  • Population: 6,670
  • Population density: 6,670 people per square mile

  • Downtown Nashville
  • Size: 1.8 square miles
  • Population: 13,000
  • Population density: 7,222.22 people square mile

To reach a density of 6,000 people per square mile, Downtown Jacksonville would need a whopping 27,300 residents. Alternatively, the city could concentrate on reaching 10,000 people in the walkable Northbank core and not count folks in Brooklyn or the Southbank towards the total. Either way, if Jacksonville is banking on new residents to bring vibrancy back to Downtown, we’re much farther behind than some would have us think.

Next page: More development myths that hold Downtown Jax back