The background

Riverfront Plaza, the former site of the Jacksonville Landing festival marketplace.

The Downtown Investment Authority has spent the last several months selecting a firm to redevelop the site of the former Jacksonville Landing, the 6-acre waterside space known in official documents as Riverfront Plaza and everywhere else as Lenny’s Lawn. The process included a design competition that kicked off in March 2021 in which three bidders submitted new plans for a park. The bidders were given a loose “placeholder” budget of $10-15 million. Among the requirements, bidders were told the plan should include a “significant” artwork that could make up a substantial fraction of the budget.

During the process, one bidder expressed concern about the prospect of designing a park and artwork without a firm budget. On June 24, the three bids were released. Agency Landscape + Planning’s proposal came in at $15 million, the only one of the three to be within the stated budget. Olin Partnership Ltd. made a pitch estimated at $27 million, while Perkins & Will made a pitch that they estimated would cost between $22 million and $29 million, depending on the material used for the signature artwork, a sculpture resembling the letters “JAX” (more on that in a minute).

Lerp wins the bid

As The Jaxson pointed out a few weeks ago, the numbers alone are a cause for concern. The city never gave an explanation as to why two bids were so far outside the publicly stated budget. On July 20, Mayor Lenny Curry released the new 2021-22 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that included the first clear picture of what the city would commit to the Riverfront Plaza project: the plan includes $1.25 million for the park in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and another $12 million that was pushed all the way out to 2025-26. Two days later, the DIA announced a winner: the Perkins & Will bid with the enormous Jax sculpture, the entry with the highest estimated cost and the most ambitious art.

Lori Boyer, CEO of the DIA, said at the time that “I think the inclusion of that monumental piece of art really threw Perkins and Will over the top.” The proposed sculpture has been compared to Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture, known as “the Bean,” an iconic public art piece that’s also made of reflective metal.

The decision drew a wide mix of responses from the public, particularly over the Jax sculpture, which social media wags said looked like “Lerp,” “Derp” or some other humorous combination of letters. The DIA reported emails they had received from citizens were 5-1 in favor of the statue, with many asking about funding opportunities. David Bauerlein of The Florida Times-Union piece found a similar result, writing that while some Jaxsons hate the design, others love it, and still others have turned it into an opportunity to sell dope merch. But the same article included a brief line that may have an even bigger impact on the proposed project:

“Curry has said more about the socks than the sculpture, whose estimated cost would be as much as $18 million. The city has no money set aside for it. Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer said the expense would need to be ‘largely privately funded’ through donations.”

The paper also quoted Boyer as saying, “ultimately, the city will need to decide if we want something — whether it’s this or some other piece of art — that becomes an icon for downtown and an icon for the city.”

In other words, despite the fact that the sculpture is what won Perkins & Will the contract, there’s no guarantee it will come together, and no money to actually build it.

Next page: Wait, are we not getting Lerp?