This morning the T-U informed us that The Shipyards is, for lack of other options, probably Shad Khan’s for the taking, provided his proposal comports with the Downtown Investment Authority’s masterplan and gains City Council approval, neither of which seems like a particularly difficult hurdle. This is exciting. There are few pockets deeper around here than Khan’s, and few areas more in need of a large, ambitious vision than The Shipyards; the city’s inability to do anything with that waterfront property is, for lack of a better word, embarrassing. If nothing else, Shad Khan gets shit done. (And yes, I can simultaneously hold that view and not be in thrall to spending $43 million on oversized EverBank scoreboards.) 

The devil, of course, will lie in the details: what Khan wants from the city (and how much the city is willing to give), and what exactly he wants to do with the property. We know very little on these fronts, except that if Khan is the master developer the project will likely take on a sports-entertainment theme. (Perhaps something akin to the $100 million development the Orlando Magic are working on in Central Florida, perhaps not.) 

Per the T-U story: 

The Downtown Investment Authority also would play a role. The authority’s recently completed master plan for downtown redevelopment says the 44-acre Shipyards site would be suited for “large-scale, mixed-use development centered around sports, entertainment and tourism.”

The master plan, which the authority board approved last week, says possible uses could be an aquarium, a U.S. Navy ship museum, a water park, a residential community, a marina, shops and restaurants.

The Jaguars have been in talks with the organization seeking to bring the USS Charles F. Adams to Jacksonville by docking it at a pier in The Shipyards for public tours. In May, the Jaguars floated the idea of building an indoor practice facility as part of a bigger development of the Shipyards. Though the Jaguars haven’t finalized their vision for the Shipyards, the team would want it to have some kind of sports theme if the Jaguars are the master developer, team President Mark Lamping said.

Forty-four acres is a lot of ground, and carries with it a lot of waterfront potential — if done right enough potential to singlehandedly transform Downtown. As the city begins weighing its options, here are four guiding principles for Khan and Jacksonville officials to keep in mind:

  1. Mixed-use, mixed-income: To really become something, Downtown needs bodies, and lots of them. People who live Downtown shop and eat Downtown; density makes things like mass transit more feasible. Whatever happens at The Shipyards, it needs a medium- to high-density housing component. And those new bodies shouldn’t just be well-heeled elites. Any deal with The Shipyards should include a medium-income housing requirement, one that incentivizes a mixture of people to move into the urban core. These apartments/condos/townhomes/whatever should be adjacent to shops and restaurants and bars and galleries and offices and medical facilities and the like; this should be an eminently walkable community. Khan, to his credit, seems to get that"It's the front door to the stadium, it's really, in a way, the front door to the city. It adds vitality to downtown Jacksonville. I think it can define and really supplement the city. To really have a vibrant downtown, you pretty much got to have 24-hour life in the city. People are living there, they're shopping there. It just can't be a destination to go in and out." And encouragingly, something like this may be what the Jags have in mind
  2. Take advantage of the riverfront — for all of us: A joint development featuring the USS Adams and an aquarium would be ideal, but even if that doesn’t pan out, whatever does take shape on The Shipyards property should offer residents — all residents, not just those who can afford condos — a chance to connect to the St. Johns, which is, let’s be honest, the lifeblood of this city. A bike/pedestrian path circumnavigating the property, or maybe a riverfront park offering scenic views and drawing on the river's immense natural beauty, would be nice. (After all, we need more spaces to gather.) And by making the river a centerpiece of the city’s Downtown development, we can also bring to the forefront of public consciousness the need to invest in it, to make it pristine again after years of pollution and neglect. 
  3. Here we are now, entertain us: The indoor practice facility is fine and good, but Downtown needs more entertainment options that appeal to broader palettes. The Adams museum and the aquarium would probably do well for tourists and kids on field trips — nothing wrong with that — but Downtown could also use a premier movie theater, perhaps as part of a larger entertainment district. (Oh, and the giant observation tower idea Killashee Investments was floating last year, pitched as some sort of weird tourist mecca, was and remains stupid. Let us never speak of it again.)
  4. Give away the land, but not the store: I’m seldom a proponent of giving rich people public money to do things that will make them richer, but the fact remains that The Shipyards’ current state of nothingness, and the difficulty the city has had getting anyone to do anything there, necessitate public investment, especially if the city wants Khan to build something to serve the greater economic-development good. So if Khan presents a solid plan, the city can just deed over the property to him, alone or as part of a wider incentive plan; over time, the increased property values from a successful development will recoup most of the investment. (The problem, in my view, with incentivizing the scoreboards is less that it is being done to boost Jags attendance, and more that it won’t do anything much for anybody else. A major Downtown residential/retail complex would.) The trick here is to incentivize the project, but not give away the store: This is, after all, a private development, and should be treated as such. Back when I was covering Orlando’s redevelopment efforts, a decade ago, the city basically enabled a developer — who, coincidentally, was the mayor’s buddy — to finance a mixed-use megaproject with little to no money out of pocket. (The project ended up being something of a mess that took years to sort out.) That’s clearly a bridge too far. But where does that line exist? To quote Justice Potter Stewart (referring to what constituted obscenity), “I know it when I see it.”
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