For decades, the idea that downtown Jacksonville could be a destination for tourists, and a hub of local activity, was simply unthinkable. For many residents, it remains unthinkable, but that is changing on a daily basis.
The process has been anything but smooth and efficient, but it’s impossible to appreciate the progress that has been made unless you were around to remember the way things looked just 30 years ago. Downtown was the undisputed epicenter of civic life for the first half of the 20th century, having seen rapid growth after the Great Fire of 1901.
Like many American cities, the expansion of suburbs in the post-war era led to a collapse of activity in Jax’s downtown. Major companies that were pillars of the community fled to the southside, while the opening of Regency Square Mall gutted interest in the retail sector. Downtown had become a virtual ghost town by the early 1980s, defined by vacant lots, empty storefronts for blocks on end, and really no housing options to speak of. There were no hotels, because there was no reason to have them, since the nightlife had pretty much ground to a halt. Once known as “the Coney Island of the South”, downtown Jacksonville was, at best, a shadow of its former self; in some parts—due to the seemingly indiscriminate raising of structures—there wasn’t even a shadow.
Things began to change, slowly, after the city and county governments were consolidated 50 years ago, and Jacksonville began digging itself out of the recession that crippled the entire nation in the 1970s. New leaders brought new ideas and a fresh vision for the city’s future. Along the way, residents began taking cues from their contemporaries to the north, in particular Savannah and Charleston, both of which have become famous for their seamless blending of past and present. Branding itself as “The Bold New City of the South”, Jacksonville’s words were backed with action, resulting in the booming, bustling mini-metropolis you see today.
That story begins, of course, with former mayor Jake Godbold, whose death in January prompted widespread reappraisal of the history in which he figured so prominently. Godbold gets universal credit for getting the ball rolling on downtown development during his term, which ran from 1978 to 1987. The major components of the downtown infrastructure were built under his watch, including the Omni Hotel, the Prime Osborn Convention Center, and the recently-demolished Jacksonville Landing. His successors built on his vision, literally.
City officials have been aggressive in their push to expand residency downtown, and to promote it as a viable option for Jacksonville’s ever-growing population. It has been a bipartisan effort that spans at least seven administrations, but they have not always been on the same page. Indeed, they are rarely on the same page, which has meant a series of starts and stops, shifting priorities, and alternating agendas. The current administration, under mayor Lenny Curry, has been tasked with consolidating 30 years of city policy, streamlining the process and clearing out channels of communication between the residents, developers, land owners, and the various regulatory agencies. By all accounts, this process has been fairly successful, but there is always more to be done.
Former mayor John Peyton, whose mandate to create more living space downtown was a highlight of his term, has worked to help facilitate further growth since his return to the private sector in 2011. “Mayors have always gotten it, but it wasn’t because there was a large constituency,” he told Karen Brune Mathis of the Jax Daily Record in January 2018. “It was because it made so much sense to have an identity in your core and have a place where people can come together.”
As president and CEO of Gate Petroleum, one of the city’s most prominent businesses, he remains a major power broker, whose advice and support has proven essential for his successors. He was also Chairman of the 3,000-member Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in 2018-2019. That organization, as well as the Downtown Investment Authority, work together as the primary brain-trust responsible for setting priorities and coordinating development efforts downtown, while Downtown Vision, Inc. directs the ever-increasing array of entertainment options for residents and visitors alike, including the now-iconic First Wednesday Art Walk.
Housing options are not limited strictly to apartments and condominiums. A tourist economy like ours requires ample hotel space, the lack of which was cited as a major issue when Jacksonville hosted Super Bowl XXXIX back in 2005. Lessons were learned, and downtown now boasts about 2,400 hotel rooms; that number is slated to expand to more than 3,000 over the next couple of years. Trends are favorable, and there seems to be no end in sight: occupancy and room rate growth has increased, month over month, for the past five years. Occupancy currently stands at a respectable 75 percent.
The construction of an expanded Northbank Riverwalk in 2005, and the renovation of its Southbank counterpart a decade later, have created pedestrian thoroughfares that serve as arteries connecting the urban core to neighborhoods across the river. That has spurred an increase in business not only downtown, but also in historic areas like Brooklyn, Riverside, LaVilla and San Marco—the latter of which, in particular, has seen explosive growth among hotels, apartments and condos along the river. Meanwhile, the growth of Springfield created more options for residents and business owners.
When Shad Khan bought the Jaguars in 2011, part of his agenda included investing in the area around Everbank (now TIAA Bank) Field, which has led, in part, to the rise of the entertainment district on Bay Street and the development of what is known as the Laura Street Trio. The opening of Daily’s Place in 2017 gave touring musicians an option for open-air concerts in a venue that can accommodate more than 5,000 people. Khan is currently pushing for the city to partner with him to help develop “Lot J”, across the street from Metropolitan Park, which is expected to take about two years and cost nearly $500 million. There has been some pushback, but that is always the case, and it’s likely that the project’s appeal will ultimately override any objections.
As construction begins on the Laura Street Trio, the old 18-story Barnett Building nearby, built in 1926, has just been re-opened, to widespread acclaim, after decades of decay and disrepair. With over 100 units available in the mixed-use space, it has quickly become one of downtown’s more prestigious dwellings. Collectively, downtown boasts about 3,200 housing units, and that number is expected to double over the next few years.
The future remains somewhat murky, but clarity is steadily increasing. “The downtown rental housing market stock has changed exponentially in the last 10 years,” says Heather Pullen, who helps oversee 12 units at the W.A. Knight Building, “and we have seen an increase in interest and need to live downtown in the last five years. I think the #1 key factor has been the economy.” The years since the 2008 recession have been boom times for the construction, with the housing market helping lead the way.
These new and existing units are being marketed primarily to the growing cadre of young, urban professionals that cities around the south are fighting each other to attract and retain. “The age range of our current residents is 25-65,” says Pullen. “About 50% of our tenants either live and work downtown or they live and work at their loft. Only about 10-20% of our residents over the last 10 years have relocated from out of town directly to downtown.” Today, downtown has about 5,200 residents, roughly triple what it had just 20 years ago. The city is pushing hard to drive that number up past their stated goal of 10,000.
The city owns a lot of high-value property on and near the river, and one priority is figuring out the future of places like the Duval County Jail and City Hall Annex. The old county courthouse was demolished last year, and the Landing came down mere weeks ago, but the future of those locations remains unclear. There’s also the infamous Berkman II complex, an unfinished eyesore whose construction was stopped cold after the collapse of an adjacent parking garage some 13 years ago.
More retail options are needed, and safety remains a concern. Downtown’s long standing reputation for danger is belied by the actual statistics, but perception is reality when it comes to things like that, and that has slowed the rate of new residents moving downtown. But more activity will mean greater safety. These concerns are being addressed, piece by piece. Like the old saying goes, “if you build it, they will come.” That has certainly proven to be the case in downtown Jacksonville, and all signs are that these trends will continue.
After decades of arrested development, residential inventory is ticking up in the urban core. (Information provided by The Downtown Investment Authority and Downtown Vision.)
Recently Completed or Under Construction
The Residences at Barnett
112 W. Adams St.
Completed: Aug 2019
# of units: 100
122 E. Duval St.
Due to be completed: Early 2020
# of units: 4
Lofts at Jefferson Station
Bay St. & Water St.
Completed: Dec 2019
# of units: 133
Ambassador Hotel Apartments
Church St. & Julia St.
# of units: 200
Jones Brothers Furniture Building
Jones St. & Hogan St.
# of units: 100
Lofts at Cathedral
325 E. Duval St.
# of units: 115
Shipping Container Apartments
412 E. Ashley St.
# of units: 18
# of units: 662
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Down(town) by the River Side” in Void Magazine’s March 2020 issue.