An industrial Inner Harbor during the early 20th century. Image courtesy of

Nearly every American city with water running through their downtown core has looked to the successful revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for pointers on how to brighten their moribund waterfronts. For the last few decades, Jacksonville has been one of these communities. It makes sense, considering both East Coast port cities feature historic waterways that were once home to steamship lines and massive shipbuilding facilities. Both waterfronts also fell on hard times during the mid-20th century, only to see much of their working waterfront economic base succumb to failed urban renewal strategies of the 1960s.

Downtown Jacksonville’s working waterfront during the 1930s.

What many tend to overlook is the common revitalization strategies and investments that Baltimore implemented over the last thirty years. These investments include festival marketplaces, science centers, convention centers, waterfront pavilions for outdoor concerts, reuse of defunct power plant sites, fixed mass transit systems, waterfront promenades and public spaces. Between 1970 and 2019, billions of dollars have been invested in both Baltimore and Jacksonville, but the result of these investments are completely opposite. In one city, sidewalks are filled with people at night and on weekends. In the other, despite better weather, finding a place open for a cup of coffee at night and on weekends can be just as difficult as finding Waldo in Times Square.

In 1984, the American Institute of Architects cited the Inner Harbor as “one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design and development in U.S. history”. In 2009, the Urban Land Institute described the Inner Harbor as “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on a Sunday afternoon

Downtown Jacksonville on a regular Sunday afternoon

The results in Jacksonville are puzzling to many. While Harbor Place had flourished and is in the process of being renovated, the Jacksonville Landing is on the verge of being demolished with no settled vision on what replaces it for the foreseeable future. While Old Bay Line’s terminals have given way to museums, pedestrian promenades, and paddle boats in Baltimore, in Jacksonville, the former Clyde Line’s terminals are now a field of overgrown grass where the 1960s City Hall was recently imploded with no redevelopment plan for the foreseeable future outside of of more studies to determine what a future highest and best use may be. Some may wonder how our urban revitalization paths ended up radically different, despite the similar investments over an eerily similar time frame.

Downtown Jacksonville on a regular Sunday afternoon

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on a Sunday afternoon

The answer is quite simple and it has very little to do with the standard bugaboos typically cited by commenters, such as the 21st-century opening of the St. Johns Town Center. And the solution isn’t going to come from pinning revitalization dreams on planned developments a mile east of the historic downtown core. The reality is this: Baltimore’s investments were implemented through the clustering of complementing uses within a compact pedestrian scale setting. Jacksonville did the opposite, by spreading its downtown investments out across an immense area, eliminating the ability to generate pedestrian-scale synergy which could lead to long-term revitalization. The following maps demonstrate why one community is seen as an international model of the success while the other spins its wheels with revitalization efforts after nearly seven decades of near-continuous failure.

Inner Harbor - Jacksonville Waterfront Similarities

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

Here is a brief list of comparable major attractions and destinations that opened in Baltimore and Jacksonville in the late 20th century.

1. Baltimore: Maryland Science Center - 1976 Jacksonville: Museum of Science and History (MOSH) - 1969

2. Baltimore: World Trade Center - 1977 Jacksonville: Independent Square - 1974

3. Baltimore: Baltimore Convention Center - 1979 Jacksonville: Prime Osborn Convention Center - 1985

4. Baltimore: Harbor Place - 1980 Jacksonville: The Jacksonville Landing - 1987

5. Baltimore: National Aquarium - 1981 Jacksonville: Times Union Center for the Performing Arts - 1997 *Jacksonville does not have an aquarium and Baltimore does not have a performing arts center in the Inner Harbor.

6. Baltimore: Pier Six Concert Pavilion - 1981 Jacksonville: Metropolitan Park - 1984

7. Baltimore: Pratt Street Power Plant - closed in 1973 and turned to commercial use in 1997 Jacksonville: Southside Generation Station - decommissioned in 2001 and demolished; awaiting redevelopment as The District

Different Results

The maps below show the location of the common investments listed above.

Baltimore Inner Harbor Map

Downtown Jacksonville Riverfront Map

Overlaying Density of Investments

Location of Baltimore investments scaled to Jacksonville's landscape

Location of Jacksonville investments scaled to the Inner Harbor's landscape

These maps show that the major differences in Baltimore and Jacksonville are the density and connectivity - or lack thereof - of projects meant to breathe life back into the core waterfront. In Baltimore, everything is clustered together, creating synergy between major anchor destinations, spurring continuous foot traffic that results in additional business and entertainment opportunity. In Jacksonville, many major investments are miles away from each other, resulting in isolation that causes even the major anchors to struggle to survive.

However, not all is lost for Jacksonville. Previous investments made that still survive today mean that the city does not have to start from scratch to turn itself around. Instead of demolishing usable building stock that still remains and placing future hope in projects like Lot J that are totally disconnected from the core, we need to embrace adding new amenities and assets that are clustered together with current ones within a compact, human-scaled setting.

Downtown Jacksonville on a Sunday afternoon

In short, what downtown Jacksonville must overcome isn’t a financial matter. It is a matter of resolving pedestrian scale connectivity in a manner that creates natural synergy and foot traffic between adjacent land uses in the historic heart of the city and urban waterfront.

Next Page: Images of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor