The Civic Council has opted for radio silence on several questionable downtown decisions that have cost taxpayers millions.
Recently, the Jacksonville Civic Council made a statement taking issue with Duval County Public Schools’ proposed master plan. This brought an end to a period in which the politically powerful group stayed quiet as the city debated a series of major issues, including Mayor Lenny Curry’s controversial plan to buy and demolish the Jacksonville Landing. This raises a significant question: where has the Civic Council been?
Formed in 2010 as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization” comprising leaders in the local business, government and nonprofit communities, the Civic Council’s stated goal is to come together to “address the challenges that others are unwilling or unable to address.” Over the years, they’ve weighed in on - and influenced - everything from downtown issues to the JEA sale to the Human Rights Ordinance, sometimes coming in on the opposite side of the political powers that be.
As we’ve noted, back in August 2014 the Civic Council mounted a considerable challenge to then-mayor Alvin Brown’s proposal for the Jacksonville Landing. That plan involved the owner, Toney Sleiman, razing the structure and replacing it with a $75 million mixed use development housing uses Sleiman preferred on the site: residential, hotel, and some retail space. Part of the deal involved the city providing $11.8 million in incentives for public improvements to the space. According to The Florida Times-Union, the Civic Council, like other movers and shakers, were underwhelmed by the proposal, its pricetag, and notably, the lack of public input the plan had received:
“It isn’t a site-specific criticism, we just feel we can do a better plan as a community and that the community has the right to be involved,” said Bob Rhodes, chairman of the Civic Council’s Downtown Task Force. “But we cannot endorse the plans as they are.
“Once a decision is made on what to build, you can’t change it. When you look at the Downtown Investment Authority’s plans, the Landing is the catalyst for downtown revitalization. If this is the epicenter for downtown, we have to measure it against the DIA goals,” he said. “And we feels this falls short.”
Plans to change the city’s skyline continue to progress through demolition.
It’s no surprise the Civic Council took issue with this plan. It just wasn’t very good. In part thanks to the Civic Council’s pushback, Sleiman hosted public charrettes to reconfigure the design, but as Sleiman insisted on demolishing the Landing and replacing it with specific new uses, there wasn’t much improvement to be had. Ultimately, the project failed to get off the ground before Brown lost his reelection bid to Lenny Curry in 2015.
More surprising is the Civic Council’s silence now that Curry is moving forward with a plan that’s worse than the previous one in every way the Civic Council criticized five years ago. It’s more than twice as expensive, with a pricetag over $22 million and growing. The replacement concept is also worse than simply underwhelming - it’s literally nothing. There’s no replacement plan, and the site is likely to remain a grass field for years, adding to Downtown’s already abundant collection of grass fields. Most significantly, Curry’s plan has had no public input whatsoever. In fact, the mayor’s office has used the 2014-15 public discussion noted to justify keeping the public out of the decision making now.
The current Landing plan has been challenged by the likes of The Florida Times-Union, former mayor Jake Godbold, council member-elect Matt Carlucci, current council member Danny Becton, and your friendly neighborhood Jaxson. Considering the Civic Council has weighed in on this very issue before, this would seem like a lock for pushback from a group that prides itself on conquering “the challenges that others are unwilling or unable to address.” So far, however, it’s been radio silence.
The Civic Council’s plan for a convention center that would also use the Hyatt Hotel and its existing meeting facilities.
The Landing isn’t the only issue the Civic Council sat out on this year. They also stayed on the sidelines as the city considered a convention center at the old Courthouse site, although they suggested their own plans for a convention center in the same space back in 2011.
By staying silent on important issues, the Civic Council hurts its standing as an independent voice for addressing major challenges. It certainly damages their claim to be non-partisan if they lambaste plans by a Democratic mayor but give a free pass when a Republican’s in office. Silence also hurts their credibility when they do weigh in on issues like the school district master plan - if they’re worried about taxpayer dollars, why only when they’re going to public schools?
It’s a pity. Jacksonville benefits when community leaders come together to face serious challenges. The city is in a better place because of the Civic Council’s advocacy and leadership on important issues like the Human Rights Ordinance. It’ll be in a worse place if even the people dedicated to addressing tough challenges decide to sit on the sidelines except when it’s expedient.
Editorial by J.D. McGregor. Contact J.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org.