What does your perfect Jacksonville Saturday look like? There are some obvious choices. An early morning setting up shop at the beaches might lead to a late night out along 1st Street. Maybe it’s hitting the Riverside Arts Market and eating your way to San Marco. Or maybe it takes getting away from civilization altogether and exploring a city, state, or national park; or getting lost on the water.
No matter if it’s city culture or outdoor hobbies, when you think about exploring and experiencing Jacksonville for a day, you probably don’t think about St. Johns Town Center—a place that Wikipedia describes as, “an upscale super-regional open-air mall in southeast Jacksonville, Florida.”
But maybe you should.
Look, there’s definitely an argument to be made against the overdevelopment of any area. Particularly when it entails an insane array of department stores, chain restaurants, and constant construction of luxury apartments with no apparent end in sight.
And sure, the thought of being trapped by traffic in a Target parking lot with no idea how to navigate out of it is enough to spark an existential crisis on the merits of consumerism. But hear me out. Many of these establishments have their places in both our hearts and wallets—I don’t hear many complaining about Chick-fil-A or the glorious absurdity of Total Wine.
And if you take the time to peel back the curtain a little bit, a day at the St. Johns Town Center can offer a surprisingly unique, and distinctly Jacksonville, experience.
Eat (and Drink) Local:
The artisanal donut renaissance is alive and well in Jacksonville. And spaces like Good Dough tend to be pretty communal in nature, so it’s refreshing to see this San Marco favorite carving out a welcoming space in a land of corporate giants.
Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails
The lack of nightlife in the Town Center is definitely an easy flaw to point out. But that does a huge disservice to Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Dinner hours rival plenty of other local spots as a destination for regulars and visitors alike. But the signature cocktails and craft beer selection make Moxie an easy happy hour choice. And since the five o’clock gridlock peaks on Town Center Parkway, you might as well have a drink and wait it out.
Sometimes the reason for something’s existence is simple. Even if, for Town Center, that reason is as frustratingly straightforward as, “Hey people like to shop so here’s a hundred stores in a one-mile radius.”
But the thousands of pairs of Vans and boardshorts in Northeast Florida have to come from somewhere, right? And if you look beyond the department stores, there are still plenty of local gems that allow you to proudly shop local.
Take locally owned and operated Zula Surf Company, which for many people is much more accessible in the Town Center than their original Ponte Vedra location. Or the official Jacksonville Armada FC store: Duval Pride comes in many different forms. Sometimes it’s as simple as a car decal, flag, or t-shirt in support of Jacksonville’s second-favorite football team.
Quality shopping, eating, and drinking (even if it’s local) is admittedly low-hanging fruit when it comes to judging the “it-factor” of an area. There has to be an unmistakable feel that makes spending time in an area feel well spent.
And honestly, it’s easy to see the appeal of the Town Center. You get easy highway access to the beaches and the city, while still retaining a connection to an established local touchstone.
Meanwhile, there aren’t many places in the country that offer an affordable, on the spot, indoor skydiving experience like the new iFly. Couple that with the five different puzzles at the new Escape Game and a boozy hour or two blasting drives at Top Golf and you have yourself an evening that rivals one in any other modern metropolitan area.
And maybe that’s the point. The Town Center could never offer the types of experiences that the beaches or historic cultural areas of Downtown Jacksonville could. And that’s ok. You can love Bold Bean, and still grab Starbucks during Pumpkin Spice season (we won’t judge!).
It certainly doesn’t mean that shiny new buildings can’t be tied together by community and a certain Duval charm, or that a Saturday in the St. Johns Town Center can’t be as memorable as any Jacksonville has to offer.
But, you know, it’s ok if it also includes a Costco run.
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Gear and Loathing in Town Center” is Void Magazine, Vol. 10, issue 2, The Explore Issue.