3. The heart of the Northbank is your activity center

Inside the Elbow District’s Cowford Chophouse.

Echoing a letter sent by Mayor Lenny Curry, DIA board members believe that now is not the time for a new convention center. Citing a 2014 convention center feasibility study, there is a belief that Downtown won’t become a convention destination without being more walkable, offering a sufficient hotel package, airlift and providing guests with things to do. As a response, some civic leaders believe that this means full development at fringe sites such as the Shipyards and the District need to take place first.

Quite frankly, this is a poor assumption not built on the consideration of context, existing or past public and private investment. Depending on the specific site, it can mean a variety of things and how they’re addressed, changes depending on the specific location. As of today, the Northbank between Broad and Liberty streets is Downtown’s activity center and will remain so for the foreseeable future. How lively we can make it is totally dependent on our ability to build upon and maximize what’s already in place. Between the Acosta Bridge and the old county courthouse site, taxpayers have already subsidized hundreds of millions in redevelopment projects since the 1950s. These include the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Jacksonville Landing, Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, Florida Theater, Museum of Science & History, Museum Of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and the Elbow District, all accessible to the Northbank Riverwalk. The long term problem with downtown’s “things to do” image is the inability to generate pedestrian-scale synergy due to the vacant buildings, surface parking lots, poorly lit streetscapes and solid walls between them.

The first floor plan of the Hotel Indigo project, illustrating street level retail and dining uses at Laura and Bay Streets.

With or without the Shipyards and the District projects, this may not be a problem for long. Between Hyatt Place, Courtyard by Marriott, Hotel Indigo, the Ambassador Hotel and Berkman II, nearly 800 new hotel rooms, four roof-top bars, multiple street level restaurants and new retail storefonts associated with these infill/adaptive reuse projects could be operational by the end of 2020. In addition to those projects, other venues on the way include Mathers Social Gathering, Joysticks Arcade Lounge & Retro Bar, 323 East Bay Street, a visitors center at the Times-Union Center of the Preforming Arts, and more retail space associated with the Laura Street Trio, Barnett, Forsyth and Main garage, Jones Brothers Furniture Building, USS Adams and 225 North Laura Street.

A rendering of the proposed Hyatt Place development across the street from the Jacksonville Landing.

Then there’s an additional 126,000-square-feet of underutilized retail space at the Jacksonville Landing that can kick market-rate synergy into overdrive when its political football game comes to an end. In short, the “things to do” situation is already being addressed naturally within the heart of the Northbank core. It only becomes a problem with the convention center situation when looking at sites located a mile in either direction of where pedestrian scale synergy is already starting to build.

Local political fights aside, the Jacksonville Landing offers as much as 126,000-square-feet of retail, dining and entertainment space in the heart of the city that can easily be reinvigorated with a new tenant mix that fits with today’s trends. Examples of similar urban festival marketplaces that have been revamped recently include Miami’s Bayside Marketplace, Norfolk’s Waterside District and Baltimore’s Harborplace.