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Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Revisiting Downtown Development

Mayor Peyton’s announcement last week that he intends to devote the last two years of his term to a renewed focus on revitalizing downtown Jacksonville has received mixed reviews.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his announcement was the timing of it.  The Mayor, after all, had just left the morning session of Reality Check First Coast, where one of the major topics of discussion centered on how to create a renewed focus on our city’s unique riverfront.

The Mayor’s critics point to a series of incomplete or abandoned initiatives during his term in office, including the Duval County Courthouse project, the Shipyards project, plans to reopen Cecil Field and the “Jacksonville Journey” crime prevention program, to name a few.  In addition, some have noticed that the renewed focus on downtown is strikingly similar to previous ideas floated, and quickly abandoned, not too long ago.  That aside, downtown Jacksonville and the riverfront are community treasures that deserve and desperately need the attention of city leaders.

Few cities in the southern United States can claim a history as rich and unique as Jacksonville.  The St. Johns River, or Rivière du Mai as the French originally named it, has played a central role in our development and emergence as a great city for well over a century.  We have spent millions cleaning it up, and it is therefore natural that our next step should be to expand the public’s access to it.  This goal, however, would be of marginal value without a significant revitalization of downtown Jacksonville.

Adam Hollingsworth, Mayor Peyton’s Chief of Staff, has said that the river will be at the heart of the Mayor’s plans.  “Opening up the park to the river and to the sports/entertainment complex, with a more cohesive and engaging design will create a community destination and gathering place,” he said.   “We need these up and down the river. That’s why the Mayor also talked about Friendship Park, the JEA site and future uses for the courthouse, annex and shipyards properties.

Certainly, a vibrant downtown is a key to a successful, thriving city.  The city’s downtown core and surrounding historic districts are in effect the “glue” that holds the diverse and widespread sections of this city together.  When the city’s core suffers from neglect and disrepair, we begin losing our identity as a unified community and become nothing more than a disparate collection of neighborhoods and suburbs.  Developing new and revitalizing old waterfront parks would serve as a tremendous draw in bringing people back to downtown.  The Mayor realizes that, says his chief of staff.  “He’s been inspired by the success of the Riverside Arts Market, Art Walk and many of the great events hosted week after week and year after year. It’s a density and diversity of activity we need to build on.  It will make downtown Jacksonville the place to be, prompting, we hope, additional retail and commercial activity.  Remember, downtown development is the most efficient for taxpayers.  It is designed for density and already has the infrastructure in place.”

However, how will Mayor Peyton convince the public this cause is one that he is personally committed to and will fully support through any potential opposition until it becomes reality?  This will be a major obstacle requiring the Mayor’s best leadership and persuasion skills, particularly in light of the aforementioned “Jacksonville Journey” initiative that he appeared to abandon several days after assuring community leaders of his support.  People’s memories can be very long in relation to those types of actions, and if the Mayor needs the support of many in that group, as he most certainly will, convincing them that this initiative will be different may prove to be his most daunting challenge.  Another obvious challenge considering today’s economic environment is funding.  In a time of extremely tight budgets across a wide spectrum, how will the city manage to fund public acquisition of private property along with necessary improvements?

None of these reasons should prevent the Mayor from aggressively pursuing this plan, but they do represent the challenges he will face as he works to implement this plan and others in an effort to build a legacy during his final years in office.  One of the first ways he could demonstrate his commitment to this cause would be by opening discussions on strengthening the City’s comprehensive plan and revamping the city’s zoning code in Chapter 656 of the City Ordinance Code.  The Mayor could always follow in the example of Portland or Miami by establishing an urban growth boundary.  He could push for measures that discourage greenfield growth and encourage urban infill.  These actions would send a much louder signal than a press conference ever could.

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