The DIA’s Greatest Hits
The Convention Center That Couldn’t
In September 2018, the city took a step toward fulfilling a long-term goal of building a new convention center at the site of the City Hall Annex and old courthouse. The city mishandled the process from the start by including unrealistic requirements, like an unnecessary new hotel. Looming over the whole affair was a proposal from Shad Khan for a convention center in the Stadium District. Still, bidders spent thousands submitting proposals, and the DIA proceeded so far as to pick a winner, before the city kiboshed the whole thing indefinitely in November. Compounding the waste, in January 2018, the city spent $8 million to demolish the Annex and old courthouse anyway, leaving yet more empty fields in the Downtown core indefinitely.
The Berkman II Fiasco
In February 2019, the DIA announced a plan to provide an eyebrow-raising $36 million incentive package to Barrington Development to turn the Berkman II skeleton into a hotel and “family entertainment center” featuring a “Dave & Buster’s on steroids.” The project was just as far fetched as that description sounds: Christopher Hong of The Florida Times-Union discovered that the developer’s main investor owed $11 million in back taxes and debts. The developer pulled back the project for reasons they said totally weren’t, but totally were, related to the Times-Union investigation. In the aftermath, Brian Hughes threatened City Council member Matt Schellenberg for daring to question the deal.
The Landing: A Dirge
Under Curry and Hughes, the city has fallen back into the “Godzilla strategy” of downtown development, in which the city blows up buildings under the dubious assumption that something new and better will replace them. This failed strategy is the main reason Downtown has more dead space than occupied buildings while development booms in peer cities like Orlando, Nashville and Tampa. The most notorious example is the planned demolition of the Jacksonville Landing, which may be the single worst downtown decision the city has made in nearly three decades.
After a protracted dispute with the Landing’s owners, Curry drafted a more than $22 million plan to purchase and raze the structure. In the process they bought out a few businesses and evicted 30 others - shuttering one of the few collections of businesses open nights and weekends in all of Downtown. The administration consistently refused public input, and refused to consider adaptive reuse. The grand plan? There isn’t one - the office’s only suggestions have revolved around a huge, passive lawn. This iconic riverfront space will be a grass field for years, if not decades.
As we say every chance we get, this is the mayor’s grand plan for the Landing site.
Again, the DIA has accomplishments - the ongoing revitalization of the Barnett Bank Building and Laura Street Trio testify to that. But its recent slate of demolitions and backwards decisions means that we take a step backward for every one we take forward. If Downtown is ever to move forward, this needs to stop.
There is hope that Lori Boyer will take the DIA in a better direction. On City Council, she was a leader in downtown initiatives, including spearheading the much needed effort to overhaul Downtown’s zoning. If anything, we can hope to see Boyer continue her focus on the nuts-and-bolts street level changes that will have a bigger impact on improving Downtown than any flashy silver bullet project.
However, the fact that the DIA could do so much damage in such a short amount of time shows that the authority is fundamentally broken on a structural level. The big, destructive moves driven by the mayor’s office will continue to be a problem. It is simply too easy for officials to co-opt the DIA’s mission, and to empower people who don’t know what they’re doing.
It’s time to acknowledge something critics have been saying for years: to fulfill its promise, Jacksonville’s downtown development agency needs a measure of independence from the whims of the leadership. To function as it’s intended, it needs proper funding and the authority to focus on long-term plans and vision that transcend individual mayoral and council terms. It may not happen soon, but it must happen if we want Downtown Jacksonville to progress. Come the next election, hopefully the empty grass lot where the Landing used to be will the city’s reminder that something major has to change at the DIA.
Editorial by J.D. McGregor. Contact J.D. at email@example.com.