It’s one thing to compare Jacksonville’s downtown to the urban cores of other major cities and express frustration. Certainly, when compared to big cities like San Francisco or New York—or even smaller Southern cities’ urban cores, like Raleigh or Charleston—DT Jax’s high inventory of vacant buildings, safety issues (real or hyperbolized) and general pedestrian unfriendliness, lack of dining and entertainment options, and lack of residential inventory make the city an outlier among its peers, many of which are far ahead in their efforts to revitalize their respective urban centers.

But to look at Jax’s urban core and deny the progress made over the course of the last half decade is quite another thing entirely. A bird’s-eye view will reveal a deluge of new dining and entertainment options (new restaurants like Cowford Chophouse, Bellweather, Superfood and Brew; Intuition’s lavish new brewery and taproom, as well as Bold City Brewery’s modest one and Manifest Distillery; Elements Bistro, Myth Nightclub), residential projects in and around Downtown (most notably Brooklyn’s 40-plus unit development, 220 Riverside), and improvements to public spaces (Hemming Park), all have led to a palpable vibrancy in the core.

And there’s more on the horizon. Residential projects big and small, from the Southbank’s 900-unit The District development to the FSCJ student dormitory, are set to (relatively) explode the number of people actually living in the urban core (a novel idea not long ago). And large-scale, mixed-use projects like the revitalization of the Barnett Bank Building and Laura Street Trio are slated to similarly increase the core’s residential population and add to the area’s growing number of retail, dining, and entertainment options. All of this and we still have yet to touch on the Shipyards, Jaguars Owner Shad Khan’s potentially game-changing mixed-use development on 70 acres of prime riverfront property.

Much of the improvement has been instigated by the Downtown Investment Authority. The task force was created by the City of Jacksonville to revitalize the downtown with the use of Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) resources (tax revenues pulled from increases in property values) and a meager Downtown Development Trust Fund. The DIA’s CEO Aundra Wallace arrived here in 2013 following stints with revitalization-focused entities in Detroit and Miami. While Wallace has broad authority to expedite permitting processes and offer incentives to businesses looking to locate in the city’s core, he’s had to be endlessly creative in how he spends the agencies resources, which are limited (for the moment) by the scant revenues produced by the city’s CRA’s. All of which paints a much more nuanced—maybe optimistic—portrait of the current state of the city’s Downtown.  

Wallace, for all his visionary maneuvering, has stuck to the Downtown Redevelopment Plan, a kind of playbook outlining goals for the core’s revitalization through 2025. In a far ranging discussion we talked to the DIA CEO about his first five years, the challenges ahead, and what the city’s downtown will look like in 2023, at which point Wallace will have been leading the redevelopment agency for 10 years.

If you had a magic wand and could make one improvement to the city’s Downtown today to improve the prospects of potential development, what would you do?  

If I had a magic wand, I’d convert all vacant buildings into mixed-use properties occupied by commercial or retail tenants on the first floors with residential or office tenants occupying the upper floors. This would change our downtown by providing more residents living in the urban core and support for the retail shops as well. This would also give us an opportunity to focus upon prioritizing the possible conversions of some streets from one-way to two-way streets. Last but not least, restoration of vacant buildings addresses the perception of safety with the buildings being activated and pedestrian traffic.

Our readers will want to know about the Shipyards. The deadline for an agreement has been pushed back, but how important is this project in your mind to the development of downtown?

Yes, I’ve sought additional time to negotiate a Redevelopment Agreement with Iguana Investments of Florida [Shad Khan’s investment group] for the development of 70 acres of City-owned riverfront property—Met Park and the Shipyards. The development of this 70 acres is critical for the success of our city.  A world-class city like Jacksonville must create a world-class riverfront to attract the region’s residents and national/international visitors.

One of many proposed renderings for the highly touted Shipyards Project.

Somewhat relatedly, Daily’s Place (and perhaps the prospect of the Shipyards development) seems to have shifted interest toward the corridor near the stadium. In what ways do you think the City can connect these two nearby parts of the downtown?  

This is not about shifting interest, but more about continuing development in the Sport Complex area while we continue to work toward a Redevelopment Agreement for the 70 acres of city-owned property—Met Park and the Shipyards. I applaud Mr. Khan in his efforts to forge ahead with development during this strong economy. Spanning the entire riverfront from the Main Street Bridge to the Hart Bridge, this area represents one of Downtown’s greatest development opportunities of scale. We are seeking the development of other City-owned assets in this area as well (i.e., Old City Hall Annex and Old Duval County Courthouse). Therefore, our efforts are fixated upon connecting the urban core to the Sports Complex which aligns with our Downtown Northbank and Southside Community Redevelopment Area Plan.

Can you talk about the river and how it presents as an asset to potential development?  

Jacksonville has several unique advantages over other coastal cities. The St. Johns River is perhaps our most defining feature, bifurcating Downtown’s Northbank and Southbank, and presents the best opportunity for riverfront development. The waterway stretches approximately 4.8 miles along the St. Johns River. This waterway identifies the opportunity to create developments that cater to the commuter, worker or traveler, by creating places where people can work, shop, live and play. This St. Johns River was a driving force behind the conceptual vision for The District project on the Southbank which has received approval for financial support from the City.

The retail enhancement grants seem to have been responsible for a lot of new businesses moving Downtown. Are you planning on continuing offering those in the future? And, if so, what kinds of projects are appealing at this point?  

Yes, we will continue with the Retail Enhancement program. Our efforts will continue to promote Downtown as a viable option for the Culinary Arts entrepreneurs. We need more eatery and spirits destinations within Downtown.

Can you give us an update on residential development projects in the core? What’s coming up? And is that still an aspect of Downtown development that needs to be addressed dramatically?  

Residential development will remain a top priority for the DIA as we strive to increase the residential population of Downtown to 10,000-plus residents. We’ve approved funding for residential units at the old Jones Furniture Building. Additionally, we’ve been engaged with the current purchaser of the Ambassador Hotel for a mix-use project consisting of a hotel and residential units. We’ve not agreed upon any financial incentive package to date, but will continue to work with the new property owner on the project. Outside of the urban core, in LaVilla underway is the construction of approximately 180 residential units with another 132 units to break ground in September. And, on the Southbank you will find a 263-unit residential development underway on the riverfront (Broadstone River House) and a 140-unit unit development breaking ground in August on Home Street behind Tidbits Restaurant. In 2019, the infrastructure improvements for The District project will spearhead the development of approximately 900-plus residential units.

What role does the arts community play in developing a downtown? What are some things that the Jax arts community has done to improve the core in recent years?  

Revitalizing a downtown encompasses arts and culture. Almost all successful downtown developments have incorporated the arts community (i.e., City of Miami). The DIA has partnered with the Cultural Council to launch the urban Art Façade and Streetscape Program. This is an arts-based civic engagement initiative to promote community development through urban design and attractive streetscape enhancements with semi-permanent and permanent public art installations.

Downtown Jacksonville still needs a lot of work (parking, capital improvements, big and small multi-use projects, increased residential offerings, large scale transportation improvements) and financing this work could be difficult. What keeps you optimistic about the future of the city’s Downtown?  

My optimism is based upon the DIA’s working relationship with Mayor Curry’s administration and the City Council. Not one time have I bought a project forward that was financially sound and feasible that it has not been supported by the Curry administration and the City Council (i.e., Barnett Building and Laura Street Trio; The District; etc.). These two projects alone represent over $100 million of direct and indirect public support and generate over $400 million of development activity.

Projects in and around TIAA Bank Field are just one piece of the puzzle from the city’s urban core.

The redevelopment plan goes to 2025, but 2023 will mark 10 years since you started your work here in Jax. What will Downtown Jacksonville look like in 2023? What do you hope the DIA has achieved by that time?  

By 2023, I envision development underway (some of which has been completed) on the Southbank at The District project along with Lot J in the Sports Complex. And during the annual Florida/Georgia game, we will no longer see an unfinished Berkman II structure being broadcasted on TV from the Goodyear Blimp, but development underway at the Shipyards and Met Park. I certainly hope Downtown is well on its way to being a 24/7 Downtown neighborhood with a residential population of over 10,000.  Downtown will be the city’s unique epicenter for business, history, culture, education and entertainment. It’s where Northeast Florida residents will want to live, work, and play.