3. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
In March 2004, developer Hal Dodt announced plans for twin 40-story towers surrounding the Southbank’s Aetna Building. Soon after, South Shore Group Partners and Hines Development secured the right to develop 300 residential units and 50,000 square feet of retail space at 841 Prudential Drive. Plans called for a 52-story single tower and a 12-foot wide riverwalk extension south of the Acosta Bridge. This progressed as far as an aggressive sales campaign that included billboards on I-95. In the end, the media buzz could not overcome the pending nationwide real estate crisis. 15 years after Dodt’s initial announcement, the site still waits for infill development.
If someone tells you that Downtown Jacksonville will have x amount of residents within five years, take that prediction as hot air. Urban revitalization doesn’t happen overnight. With each individual development, there’s an array of pitfalls that can pop up at any point along the way that can delay or outright kill a dream inspired by a pretty rendering and self promoting press releases.
Any adult living in Jacksonville prior to 2005 should be aware of this when it comes to downtown redevelopment. For those newcomers out there, there was a time when it seemed like every other week, a new project promising to be the city’s tallest popped up out of thin air. In those days before everyone and their dad was on social media, there was even a heated debate at Skyscrapercity.com about Which “ville” will have the best skyline in 2020?
Everything came to a crashing thud when the real estate market went up in smoke in the Great Recession. Time would ultimately prove that Nashville would defeat both Jacksonville and Louisville with a major landslide victory. If you think we’re blowing smoke, here’s a link to a digital cemetery of dead projects and their associated renderings that we keep in our online archives.
Berkman 2 is a harsh reminder that when it comes to big expense projects poised as redevelopment catalyst, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. This is especially true when dealing with contaminated publicly owned sites that we still have not cleaned despite nearly two decades of public ownership.
2. Rethink how we view existing building stock
The Jacksonville Landing is one of several structurally sound downtown properties in line for demolition for green space and undetermined development that could instread be quickly re-purposed on the cheap. While buildings available for reuse go ignored, other projects requiring hundreds of millions in tax dollars for razing expressways, extending infrastructure and environmental cleanup are being pushed forward.
According to the old axiom, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Jacksonville leadership fits this definition with its “demolish it and redevelopment will come” strategies towards downtown revitalization over the last few decades. Despite the focus on destroying old for new, big, and bold, smaller market rate projects involving the adaptive reuse of buildings have led the way in downtown development.
In recent months, we’ve seen an effort to raze structurally sound but underutilized buildings without bothering to issue Request for Proposals (RFP) to even consider the creative possibilities of affordable and time-efficient adaptive reuse. Meanwhile, Berkman 2’s situation involves continued attempts to spend hundreds of millions to clear a litany of obstacles around the shipyards site in hopes of stimulating built development at that specific, highly contaminated location. Contamination at the shipyards property was a large enough problem that Berkman 2’s developers did not feel comfortable about the cost or timing of resolving the issue despite $36 million in public incentives being on the table.
He said over the past few months, the group’s engineering partners also raised concerns about the level of existing contamination on part of the Shipyards property Barrington was to secure from the city as part of the agreement.
“They got less and less comfortable from both a cost and a timing perspective that the contamination issue could get resolved quickly,” he said.
Seattle’s Gas Works Park
In short, this is an interesting time for observers of the current efforts to breathe life into the city’s central business district. There’s an obvious desire to activate the riverfront, and it makes total sense. The river is an amenity that can’t be replicated and it is the core reason why the city and downtown are where they’re at today. Perhaps Jacksonville should follow recent examples in Seattle, Gainesville, and Tallahassee, where waterfront contaminated sites have become the grand parks that local civic leaders desperately seek. Meanwhile, cities such as Miami, Norfolk, and Tampa have correctly viewed festival marketplaces comparable to the Landing as underutilized turnkey commercial sites, and used them as conduits to quickly breath life with a new set of uses?
An image of Gainesville’s Depot Park when it was under construction on a brownfield site.
1. A true downtown master plan Is needed
Nashville’s Broadway Avenue in 2012. Where’s Downtown Jacksonville’s designated corridor for continuous blocks of mixed-use retail frontage?
If we look around the state, cities that have had successful downtown redevelopment stories have another strong common characteristic between their experiences. There’s a vision, road map or plan where everyone from public officials and the private sector to local residents, non-profits and related public agencies know, understand where a community is headed and what it will take to get there.
The Berkman 2 experience is what a dose of reality will do to projects forced onto specific sites that have incompatible conditions or obstacles to overcome. It further points to the need for a downtown master plan and identified vision for what Jacksonville wants to do with city-owned catalytic sites, an identified time line for incremental implementation, and a funding source to make it happen.
All of this leads to a broader, more basic question: What is our plan for the Northbank?
After years of watching little happen on the Northbank, it’s understandable to want to see things finally happening. But we need to get this right. Building isn’t automatically progress.
Chris Hong’s story in Tuesday’s paper detailed why we should have concerns about plans for the proposed Berkman II redevelopment. The head of a Mississippi-based firm behind the project, which could receive $36 million in public incentives, owes more $200,000 in delinquent property taxes on a New Orleans condo project, plus another $79,000 to contractors.
Beyond the financial concerns, there is the question of whether the plan itself is right for downtown’s riverfront.
This is one example of why some are calling for the city to develop a true master plan, with defined design standards and a clear blueprint for entire waterfront — not just unrelated projects popping up along the river.
The Block and Street Framework Plan from Nashville’s South of Broadway Strategic Master Plan. Without guidance, single land ownership or existing suitable building stock, continuous blocks of mixed-use retail frontage rarely form on their own.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com