EDITOR'S NOTE

A Plaza to Praise

Do recent decisions and activities mean a new dawn for downtown Jacksonville?

Posted

Hemming Plaza is a microcosm of downtown Jacksonville — both its highs and its lows.

By day, it’s a restful space at the center of a busy hub of activity — City Hall, MOCA, Jacksonville Public Library, the beautifully renovated Dalton Agency and a Skyway stop. But at night, it’s a dark, abandoned vacuum, unless there’s an event like Art Walk.

Fountains reflect dappled light filtered through shade-giving trees. But there’s a notable lack of green space — nearly every surface is hard and grey.

Plenty of tables and seating invite visitors to linger. But some of the people lingering, such as the homeless, are considered undesirable company by those on lunch breaks. Of course, it’s not that there are an inordinate number of homeless people downtown; they’re just more noticeable without more people to throw in the mix. Folks don’t usually complain about the downtown homeless problem during an event like Art Walk, and it’s not because the homeless population suddenly disappears during these events.

These are the dichotomies with which downtown Jacksonville struggles now, and has been struggling for decades, ever since businesses and retail stores began abandoning the core for suburban office parks and shopping malls.

Many restorative ideas have come and gone. One of the biggest, The Jacksonville Landing, remains, since its opening in 1987. There it sits 25 years later, perched on the riverfront, full of promises not quite fulfilled.

Several things have happened recently that show signs of positive change.

The City Council granted a seven-year extension for the business improvement district that assesses an extra 1.1 mills tax on commercial property in the downtown core. This revenue, plus $311,660 from the city for the 2012-’13 budget year, supports the work of Downtown Vision, Inc. This not-for-profit creates downtown activities, such as Art Walk, works to retain businesses, markets the core’s attractions and staffs the orange-shirted Downtown Ambassadors who provide on-the-street information and guidance, as well as cleaning services.

The Downtown Development Review Board voted to move forward with a proposed garage next to the SunTrust Tower. It would provide 600 parking spaces right across the street from The Jacksonville Landing. The builders, Parador Partners, would set aside 200 spaces on weekdays and 375 on nights and weekends for public use. That’s a lot of new spaces, but not enough for the city’s contract with Toney Sleiman, which requires 300 weekday and 375 night and weekend spaces for the Landing.

By the way, people complain a lot about parking, but the fact is that there are plenty of street spaces throughout downtown Jacksonville, especially for evening events. You just have to get out of the suburban mindset of pulling into a parking lot a few feet from the front door of your destination. You might have to walk a block or two. Believe me, it won’t kill you.

Mayor Alvin Brown and City Council President Bill Bishop named their nine nominees to the newly created Downtown Investment Authority, an unpaid board charged with bringing new businesses and residents to downtown. Brown has wanted to bring more focus to the urban core, attracting things like a movie theater, grocery store and restaurants. Next, the DIA will need to hire a CEO.

This isn’t a new concept. Jacksonville had a Downtown Development Authority, but Mayor John Peyton abolished it in 2006 and folded its responsibility into the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which the City Council dissolved this year at Brown’s request.

These are good signs for downtown. If you look at Downtown Vision’s calendar, you’ll find multiple options for downtown entertainment every day of the week. Here are some examples:

In June, Go Skate Day descended on Hemming Plaza with an evening of skate competitions by professional skaters, roller derby girls, bands, an art show, a chopper show, an antique car show and more. It was the first time the city had granted permission to skate in urban areas.

PB&J, which stands for Party, Benefit and Jam (spreadthejamjacksonville.org), is a series of charity events held mostly in downtown locations. The next event is an Evening of Dance Sept. 28 at The Art Center II Studios.

Earlier this month, the day-long Bass in the City pumped electronic dance music, hip-hop and live art at five downtown clubs — 1904 Music Hall, Burro Bar, LIT, TSI and Underbelly.

Last week, the former Chew restaurant location reopened as Pho A Noodle Bar at 117 W. Adams St.

From Sept. 21 through the Oct. 3 Art Walk, in celebration of Park(ing) Day, the City of Jacksonville will allow for some downtown parking spots to be transformed into temporary public spaces such as “parklets” or art galleries.

And on the horizon is One Spark, a five-day event in April 2013 for creators from all over the world to showcase projects for a chance to score funding via a $250,000 crowdfund (see our story on page 11).

One of Peyton’s last hurrahs was the Laura Street improvement project to make it more pedestrian-friendly. Now it’s time to make Hemming Plaza the jewel of downtown that it should be. There’s a plan for an amphitheater at the 220 Riverside project. Wouldn’t it be great if that amphitheater was at the center of downtown?

Then, Hemming Plaza would be the symbol of the downtown we’ve always wanted.

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