For decades, the location of the Jacksonville Landing has served as a central fixture in the city’s downtown. As the future of downtown continues to be envisioned, it is important for stakeholders to always consider new possibilities. With that in mind, Jacksonville Landing Investments (JLI) and Mayor Curry on behalf of Jacksonville have entered into a Settlement Agreement for the terms by which the Jacksonville Landing and the property at its location would see their best and highest use realized. Both parties agree that with the future of Jacksonville shining so bright, now is the time to forge this path forward.

“For years, Jacksonville Landing Investments and Sleiman Enterprises have contributed immeasurably to development and job creation in and around Jacksonville,” said Mayor Lenny Curry. “The Landing has been a fixture in the community much like the Sleiman organization, who stepped in at a time when the property’s future was in doubt upon the exit of the original developer. On behalf of the citizens of Jacksonville, I appreciate their willingness to work with me so that Jacksonville can consider an alternate path forward for the location of the Landing.”

“Mayor Curry is having success in Jacksonville and in downtown,” said Toney Sleiman on behalf of JLI. “The JLI team and the entire Sleiman organization want to see that success continue and we are ready to see this process come to a mutually agreed conclusion.”

Source: February 20, 2019 City of Jacksonville press release

The Mayor’s plans for demolishing the Landing and replacing it with a front lawn for the core of Downtown aren’t actually new. During John Peyton’s mayoral administration, a similar vision was proposed that called for razing the Landing, replacing it with something similar on the Southbank and relocating Kids Kampus. Known as the Big Ideas Plan and illustrated below, it eventually died after Kids Kampus was destroyed and not replaced.

Under the current Landing settlement agreement, the City of Jacksonville would buy out Sleiman for $15 million. In addition, $1.5 million would go to removing existing businesses and another $1.5 million would go to demolishing the building to prepare it for redevelopment. The deal’s unknown costs include the millions taxpayers would be requested to fund a park in place of the Landing, and to assist in getting a similar project off the ground adjacent to TIAA Bank Field that will offer what’s taken out with the Landing’s removal.

With this in mind, here are four reasons why taxpayers should be concerned.

4. Demolition Touted As Economic Development

Instead of questioning the benefit of investing millions in imploding the old City Hall Annex building, the city held parties to celebrate the creation of another dead, pedestrian hostile block in the heart of the city. A single demolition may not seem like much, but after decades of the same revitalization strategies, the negatives become quite obvious.

An aerial of a surface parking lot-free Downtown Jacksonville during the 1930s. (Howard Lawson)

In recent years demolition has been promoted as some form of positive redevelopment. Similar story lines existed during during Downtown’s darkest days in the 1970s and ’80s. However, demolition for the sake of ridding ourselves of vacant buildings or places some may think are ugly isn’t economic development. Nor does it prepare a site for redevelopment. At its core, the direct cost of demolition is the money spent to pay for it that could have been used to fund worthwhile projects like two-waying streets, assisting the renovation of historic structures, upgrading existing public spaces or simply better maintaining what we already have. A longer-term cost is the loss of downtown’s unique sense of place. That’s the special characteristic that keeps tourist coming to cities like St. Augustine, Savannah and Charleston as opposed to Jacksonville’s downtown and surrounding urban core. Investments that immediately call for demolition don’t necessarily move the economic development ball forward. There are a lot more variables that go into making sure an urban site’s potential is maximized as much as possible.

3. Demolition vs. Adaptive Reuse

Waterside District in Downtown Norfolk. (Cordish)

There’s nothing new under the sun. The Jacksonville Landing is just one of many Rouse festival marketplaces across the country. While many had the same struggles as the Landing, several have been successfully updated into destinations. In Norfolk, the long struggling Waterside District has reopened with a new tenant mix featuring dining and entertainment venues surrounding a food hall. In Baltimore, Harborplace’s Platt Street Pavilion is in the midst of an $8 million makeover into a food hall and public market.

In Miami, seeking to secure its future as the U.S retail industry continues to evolve, owner Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation recently completed a project to give that city’s aging Bayside Marketplace a makeover. Through the use of a new, lighter paint scheme, hurricane-resistant polyurethane roofs with LED lighting, landscaping, signage, contemporary-looking railings and stairs, and a revamped tenant mix, Bayside is now poised to be around decades into the future. With work on the existing structure now complete, future phases include expanding the mall’s garage, adding shops to face downtown and Biscayne Boulevard and a new 1,000-foot observation and entertainment tower called SkyRise. Today, with a fresh look, more daiquiri bars than one can count and serving as ground zero for boat tours, Bayside Marketplace remains as popular as ever with tourists, despite the emergence vibrant life and competition in the central business district surrounding it.

A recently updated Bayside Marketplace in Downtown Miami.

In all three examples, the existing buildings were remodeled into exciting places that are unique to their local environment for a fraction of the cost of full redevelopment. Today, these former festival marketplaces are clean, safe beacons of light anchoring their downtowns while supporting tourism and the surrounding, growing residential population.

In a 21st century world where the market prefers local authenticity and sense of place, it appears Jacksonville’s strategy towards redevelopment has become demolish what’s on site and figure out later what the development options are, all at the taxpayer’s expense. Unfortunately, for Jaxsons who really would like to see Downtown vibrant within their lifetime, this unorthodox, risky and expensive approach to urban revitalization is more likely to result in a happy ending for demolition contractors and those providing sod for the resulting moonscape. Before outright approving a deal to spend $18 million to raze and replace a structurally sound buildings with a “front lawn” that public hasn’t asked for, serious consideration should be given to first exhausting more cost effective options that come with various forms of adaptive reuse.