Over the past several years, ambitious plans for new parks along Downtown Jacksonville’s riverfront have been widely discussed. Designs for no fewer than six waterfront parks have been paraded before City Council, reviewed within various civic commissions and shared with the press.

At the same time, conversations about the city’s most historic, resilient, strategically important urban park – the 158-year-old James Weldon Johnson (JWJ) Park, in front of City Hall – have been conspicuously absent from public discourse.

Major sitework has already taken place to remove the park’s 50-year-old fountains. And, per the conservatory that oversees the park, final plans for a redesign are expected by “early 2024,” despite no concepts or designs having been formally shared with the public (just two small, in-person, weekday workshops).

As a city, we’ve been down this road before. Mistakes made during the last redesign of JWJ Park have handicapped Downtown Jacksonville for 50 years, effectively turning our city’s historic town square into a blighted pass-through. With hundreds of millions of dollars in public incentives earmarked for projects on all sides of the park, Jacksonville can’t afford to make that same multi-generational mistake again.

If our goal as a city is to breathe new life into Jacksonville’s urban core, JWJ Park is ground zero to those efforts. Thus, any new plans for James Weldon Johnson Park must be widely shared with the public for feedback, must take the entire surrounding context into consideration, and must be strictly anchored in proven best practices that have revitalized similar urban spaces elsewhere.

A pretty, green park designed in a vacuum won’t move Downtown Jacksonville forward. Only a vibrant, energetic, flexible, economically self-sustaining town square has the potential to catalyze the surrounding blocks, amplify our nearby investments, bring adjacent dead properties back to life, and make good on promises that its 1971 redesign failed to deliver.

So, to honor the park’s 158th birthday this month, I’d like to present a case study from an eerily similar park — New York City’s Bryant Park — that provides the ideal blueprint to set up JWJ Park to be successful and self-sustaining for decades to come.

Bryant Park vs. James Weldon Johnson Park

On paper, JWJ Park shares a lot in common with New York City’s famed Bryant Park. Both are anchored by their city’s flagship library. Both are bounded by a major public transportation station. They are similar in shape, tree cover and orientation. And they’ve been on parallel paths historically: built in the late 1800s, struggled with blight and poor perception. But when they underwent redesigns in the last 50 years, there were starkly diverging results.

And though Bryant Park is larger than JWJ Park, the principles applied there are easily transferable to our smaller, more market-appropriate acreage.

To better understand the drastic difference in outcomes resulting from each space’s most recent redesign, let’s take a brief look at the history of each park.

James Weldon Johnson Park’s history

An early 20th century view of James Weldon Johnson Park. (Library of Congress)

Within our 875-square-mile city, no single block is as strategically and historically important as the 1.5-acre Downtown plot bounded by Laura, Hogan, Monroe, and Duval streets. City founder Isaiah Hart recognized this as early as 1857, setting the plot aside for use as a public square. Once complete in 1866, City Park (later known as St. James Park, then Hemming Park and now, James Weldon Johnson Park, became Jacksonville’s de-facto town square, serving as the seat of commercial, recreational, and civic activity for over 150 years.

Throughout the early 1900s, flexible greenspace and fixed amenities like the park’s long standing bandshell allowed the space to host weekly (often daily) musical performances, civic events, movie nights and political speeches.

By mid-century, Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon were hosting political rallies in the space, and the city’s largest department stores — JCPenney, Woolworth’s, Furchgott’s, Ivey’s, and May Cohens — had set up shop on its borders. The year 1960 brought the park’s darkest day, Ax Handle Saturday, when civil rights protestors who came to a sit-in at some of these department stores’ whites-only lunch counters were attacked by more than 200 Klansmen while police looked the other way.

Hemming Park experienced rapid decline in the 1980s as surrounding department stores began to close or relocate to the suburbs. In response, as part of a failed 1971 Downtown Master Plan, the park’s remaining grass was ripped out and the space was converted into a brick-and-concrete passthrough.

“The village green has been deserted,” the Times-Union reported at the time, “abandoned to the homeless.”

In the decades that followed, what was eventually rebranded as “Hemming Plaza” became a crime-ridden symbol of Downtown Jacksonville’s fall, even after the adjacent St. James Building was converted into our City Hall in 1997 and our new flagship Main Jacksonville Library was built next door in 2005.

A public/private conservatory, Friends of Hemming Park (now Friends of James Weldon Johnson Park), was established and funded by the city in 2014 to reactivate the space, oversee programming, and create a block that was self-sustaining.

In the decade since, Friends of JWJ Park has been a tremendous asset to the city. Despite their shoestring budget, the group has brought much-needed stability, programming, and community outreach. If you’ve spent any time in the area, you also know that the staff is as friendly and committed as you’ll find anywhere in Jacksonville.

Since early 2023, Friends of JWJ Park has been working with Oakland-based HOOD Design Studio on a redesign of the park. Sixteen concepts have been developed as the result of a $1 million grant from the state. Though some of the designs may be great, without seeing them in full, we have no way of knowing. Aside from a few largely illegible images that made their way onto social media, only those able to attend weekday in-person workshops have had the opportunity to view the concepts and provide feedback. When asked if designs shared during the meetings would be made available to the public, the city has been non-committal.

Next, let’s look at a space that has successfully overcome similar struggles and become one of the country’s great urban parks: New York City’s Bryant Park.

Bryant Park history

1940s Bryant Park (Ken Bowen)

Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park, bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets, has its own long, storied history. While JWJ Park has seen its fair share of U.S. presidents, NYC’s like-block saw none other than George Washington lead Revolutionary troops across its grounds.

For much of its early history, the square served as a burial ground for those lost to the devastating yellow fever pandemic (at one time, JWJ Park was also considered for cemetery space). By 1884, the bodies had been moved and Bryant Park had been dedicated, named after longtime New York Evening Post Editor William Cullen Bryant.

As the early 20th century progressed, construction for the adjacent New York Public Library and the Interborough Rapid Transit subway tunnel raged on, with Bryant Park looking more like a storage yard than a city park. Once these projects were finally completed, Bryant Park was given a much-needed grand redesign in 1934.

The park’s 1934 redesign was intended to transform the congested square into a quiet urban oasis, giving New Yorkers respite from the hustle and bustle of the city streets surrounding it. Ironically, it was this celebrated redesign that resulted in the park’s blight in coming decades.

By raising Bryant Park four feet above street level and enclosing it with granite walls, narrow entrances, and tall hedges, the park was nearly impenetrable from the streets, making illicit activity alarmingly easy. A Bryant Park advocate told The New York Times, “It’s incredible, but it seems the park was designed for pushers.” Architectural critic Paul Goldberger joked, “The park could not be seen clearly from the street, and people inside could not see back out to the sidewalk. A set of conditions ideal for drug dealers, but of little comfort to anyone else.”

When a public-private conservatory, the Bryant Park Restoration Corp., took control of the space in the 1980s, they partnered with famed urban planner William Whyte on a safe, vibrant redesign. The park was instantly transformed from a dangerous place that workers avoided to one of NYC’s most popular and beloved urban destinations.

The tentpoles of Whyte’s redesign, which have become a magic formula for successful placemaking in the decades since, include things like built-in flexibility, clear sight lines, a social design, consistent programming, fixed amenities, and diverse revenue streams.

With this in mind, let’s now take a look at five key ideas from Bryant Park’s successful revitalization that we should apply to JWJ Park’s redesign to not just build a new park, but to create a vibrant, self-sustaining block that gives Jacksonville’s central business district a much needed shot in the arm.