Macon, GA is an example of a smaller community with a citywide nonprofit preservation organization.

Smaller communities like Macon, GA and Dubuque, IA are good examples of cities with citywide nonprofit preservation organizations that have effectively captured the connection between economic development and historic preservation. These nonprofits are leaders in working with their respective cities to see successful real estate projects through to fruition, leading to major change in their downtowns in particular. The Historic Macon Foundation got their start primarily in historic real estate projects, and their mission has expanded to “revitalize communities by preserving architecture and sharing history.” As part of their work, Historic Macon works closely with local government to purchase property, rehabilitate it, and put it back on the market, from projects ranging to workforce housing to larger-scale downtown structures. In addition, Historic Macon engages in the more traditional advocacy work of preservation nonprofits.

In Dubuque, Heritage Works “preserves, protects and promotes historic architecture as one of the Dubuque, Iowa region’s unique assets in attracting people, investment and jobs.” Besides taking an active and hands-on role in specific historic restoration projects, Heritage Works has implemented a vocational training program to train locals in preservation trades, providing job opportunities and a future for people as well as places.

A row of unprotected historic retail storefronts along Broad Street, LaVilla’s version of Riverside’s Five Points.

A citywide historic preservation organization in Jacksonville would be able to look more holistically at the entire community and work with neighborhoods, like downtown and others, currently lacking a preservation advocacy voice. It could learn from these other communities and combine the best of advocacy and economic development strategies. In doing so and in keeping with trends in historic preservation, such an organization could think beyond just the buildings themselves, but work with Jacksonville neighborhoods to ensure they are vibrant spaces highlighting culture, memory, and identity through public art, events, and education.

Two, central Downtown is not protected by a local historic district.

There is a distinction between being a National Register historic district and a local historic district established by local ordinance. National Register districts are areas placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This inclusion provides no protection for the area, as the National Register is an honorary listing only of significant places. Protection for historic structures happens at the local level through a local historic preservation ordinance that directs the process for creating local historic districts.

Jacksonville has various National Register districts, Downtown being a recent addition in May 2016, but has only two local historic districts, Riverside Avondale and Springfield. This means that buildings in those neighborhoods are subject to a design review process, and more critically,scrutiny for potential demolition. Downtown, being only on the National Register, does not have that higher level of scrutiny. The City of Jacksonville does have a local landmarking program that can be applied to individual buildings, and then those buildings go through a preservation review process including demolition. In the instance of the Gulf Life Building, the building was not found to meet the threshold for individual landmarking. Some buildings in Downtown have been landmarked and have that higher level of protection, but creating a district would eliminate the piecemeal process of designating only certain buildings and instead provide a larger layer of protection for the entire district.

The heart of downtown Orlando was designated in 1980 as the city’s first local historic district.

Downtown districts can be vibrant and have a local historic district. In Orlando, the downtown Historic District was designated in 1980 as the City’s first local historic district. The downtown Denver local historic district was created in 2000 by the City of Denver as a non-contiguous historic district within the core downtown area consisting of 43 buildings identified as architecturally or historically significant and worthy of preservation. The city also has a more traditional contiguous district, Lower Downtown, created in 1988. Nashville has a downtown historic preservation overlay zone, and Minneapolis includes portions of their downtown in two local historic districts. In Minneapolis, their St. Anthony Falls district crosses the Mississippi River, in a similar geographic setting as Jacksonville’s downtown.

Los Angeles and Philadelphia have multiple historic districts just within their downtowns. This illustrates another point unique to Jacksonville: for a city of its size, having only three local historic districts is unusual. Looking at most any major city will provide examples, but to illustrate, even smaller cities utilize this planning tool more. As just one illustration, West Palm Beach has 17 historic districts.

Housing the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday, the Richmond Hotel was the place to stay during LaVilla’s days as a jazz and blues era destination. However, despite its historical significance, it’s an example of a downtown building that can be demolished with little review and oversight.

Finally, an overemphasis on Downtown revitalization as only encompassing the 3.9 square mile area, and not a more comprehensive and connected approach as inclusive of the surrounding urban core, limits the vision and potential for a holistic revitalization strategy.

The discussions that surround revitalization in downtown Jacksonville treat the area almost as if it’s an island, disconnected from the urban core neighborhoods that surround it. These neighborhoods are thriving and are historically connected to the development of central downtown Jacksonville. Telling the story of the larger urban core, with central Downtown included, paints a much broader picture of our history and who Jacksonville is today. Urban core neighborhoods are a destination. From a tourism perspective, so much is happening in the these surrounding neighborhoods, but the hotel rooms are in central Downtown. Springfield, Riverside, Eastside, and San Marco are only minutes away from the many visitors who stay in our downtown hotels. If “Downtown” revitalization was viewed in a larger context as the entire urban core and how these areas are connected, it might just change how revitalization and preservation are viewed in Jacksonville.

Historic “missing middle” multi-family housing in Durkeeville.

Many of the neighborhood groups recognize this. Over the past couple of years, many of the urban core neighborhood organizations, including other groups like Downtown Vision, Inc., Durkeeville Historical Society, and the Eastside Environmental Council, have formed an informal coalition to begin to work together around common issues facing urban core communities, though not limited to historic preservation. There is an economy of scale and power in numbers where organizations that combine resources and work together. This is a positive direction to move in for purposes of raising awareness of the interconnectedness of urban core neighborhoods and their ultimate connection to downtown Jacksonville.

Editorial by Adrienne Burke, AICP, Esq.