A site plan of the public space concept in the 2015 Wakefield Beasley and Urban Design Associates plan. The blank spaces represent the footprint of multi-level mixed-use buildings proposed at the time by developer Toney Sleiman. The red spaces represent waterfront retail buildings for restaurants and coffeehouses. (Wakefield Beasley & Associates (WBA) in collaboration with Urban Design Associates)

Despite the excitement of something positive finally being done with the Jacksonville Landing property, Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposal to spend $11.8 million in public funds for the project was axed from the 2015 budget the City Council in September 2014. Despite the setback, the redevelopment of the Jacksonville Landing remained one of Brown’s top priorities. Due to the significant public interest for a better design, Brown and the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) set aside $100,000 to bring on board consultants to work with the city and Sleiman for a better plan with public input. As outlined below, the DIA’s six goals of redevelopment for the Jacksonville Landing were:

  1. Create an opening so there is a view corridor from Laura Street to the river. Currently, the Landing blocks that view.

  2. Provide open space as part of the Riverwalk.

  3. Mesh the site with surrounding properties.

  4. Design an eye-catching project that would be a “recognizable symbol for Jacksonville’s waterfront.”

  5. Make it an active site at day and night.

  6. Ensure the redevelopment is “economically sustainable.

(Wakefield Beasley & Associates (WBA) in collaboration with Urban Design Associates)

By the time the DIA had contracted with consultants Wakefield, Beasley and Associates, based in Atlanta, and Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, Mayor Alvin Brown was in the process of being defeated by Lenny Curry, only the second time in recent history where a sitting mayor lost re-election.

With a goal of creating an economically successful development that would also become a night-and-day gathering spot, a public workshop was held. However, Sleiman Enterprises limited public engagement to a small, predetermined mix of uses the company had already proposed. Sleiman Enterprises owned the Landing buildings, and planned to pay for the new structures and their continued operation. As a result, many potential uses such as food halls, cultural attractions, public markets, adaptive reuse, etc. were never seriously on the table for consideration, discussion and evaluation.

(Wakefield Beasley & Associates (WBA) in collaboration with Urban Design Associates)

By July 2015, details were beginning to emerge about Wakefield Beasley and Urban Design Associates’ work. Sleiman’s original plans for waterfront open space were expanded by eliminating a waterfront street within the Bergmann concept. Other uses under consideration included a hotel and museum. The first building to be constructed by Sleiman would have been a 300 unit luxury apartment building with 600 parking spaces and ground-floor retail and restaurants. Overall, the seven-acre site was designed to be 40 percent open, public space, 45 percent mixed-use development and 15 percent devoted to public access and service corridors.

At this point, Curry came into office. Despite the public input and money spent to bring in professional urban design consultants, the political structure and priorities in city hall quickly brought an end to Sleiman’s final plan for redevelopment of the property. Rather than sharing the final plan with the public, the Curry administration shelved it entirely, and in October 2015 filed suit against the Sleimans over the adjacent parking lot. This led to years of political football with no further movement on the Landing. Ultimately, Sleiman emerged victorious, being paid $22 million by taxpayers to leave.

However, in a recent interview with WJCT, seeking to justify continued actions to limit future public participation and raze the property without an economic plan for recovery, Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of staff, Brian Hughes, presents an inaccurate and misinformed version of history:

“To get public input is genuinely unnecessary because we’ve been there and done that.”

That’s how Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of staff summarizes the call by incoming City Council Matt Carlucci and others to explore adaptive reuse and other options before demolishing The Jacksonville Landing.

Hughes, who’s also serving as interim CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority, said Carlucci’s suggested charrette, an intense period of design or planning activity, has already taken place.

He points to the administrations of the two previous mayors, John Peyton and Alvin Brown, who both explored ways to redevelop the Landing property.

While correct that a charrette under the Alvin Brown administration had taken place, the circumstances were radically different from today. In 2015, the Landing was a privately owned property being redeveloped by a property owner intending to construct specific uses. These uses included over 300 apartments and a boutique hotel. As such, the public engagement process never involved consideration of wholesale adaptive reuse or discussion of potential programming and uses outside of Sleiman’s desired design criteria. As of today, the city of Jacksonville finally owns 100 percent of the land and buildings, immediately opening the door to an array of potential market rate economic opportunities.

Hughes goes so far as to disingenuously suggest that nothing has changed between the 2015 plan and the Mayor’s Office desired plans for the site.

Hughes said the process resulted in a master plan for the Landing that was unveiled in 2015 by Wakefield Beasley & Associates (WBA) in collaboration with Urban Design Associates. He said that study cost taxpayers $100,000. WBA has worked on other Jacksonville projects, including the St. Johns Town Center and Adamec Harley-Davidson’s Baymeadows location.

“If you look at Mayor Curry’s plan, as it was, as it unfolded last June, it’s exactly the same plan. So this is nothing new,” he said.

Front lawn plan (currently unfunded) for Landing site after demolition proposed by Mayor’s Office. (City of Jacksonville)

Sketch of 2015 redevelopment plan by Wakefield Beasley and Urban Design Associates. Compared to the Mayor’s Office plan, Hughes quote about them being exactly the same come off as extremely inaccurate. (Wakefield Beasley & Associates (WBA) in collaboration with Urban Design Associates)

Throughout the Landing’s history, the general public has always been led to believe that redevelopment of the Landing property would result in something world-class with the ability to attract people to the site during the day, at night and on weekends. When compared side by side, the two concepts are dramatically different. Earlier plans included several massive new buildings to replace the Landing; the current one involves demolition of the structure without any apparent plans for replacement.

In conclusion, things have gone from a public engagement process where participants were led to believe the result would be a mixed-use riverfront development with interactive outdoor space where development costs, future uses and the developer were already known to a large passive lawn and two small undetermined bubbles of space of where some undetermined use could be added at an undetermined time for an undetermined cost by an undetermined developer.

At the end of the day, the core goal should to make sure that the Downtown Northbank’s potential for vibrancy is maximized to the greatest extent possible. The Jacksonville Landing is a major factor in that. The site has always been one where the public has desired, and been promised, a world-class space by city leaders. What could possibly be wrong with keeping the public in the loop and allowing them to update their opinions to account for the vast changes in the Landing’s ownership that have occurred over the last five years?

Regardless of where an individual’s personal opinion may lie on the topic of the site’s future, at the very least, Jaxsons deserve true, open and honest engagement from their elected and appointed officials.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com