While there seems to be a growing consensus that something needs to be “done” with the aging Jacksonville Landing, very few of our local decisionmakers seem to understand the real reason why making such improvements is so important to the future of the Downtown. Likewise, while some of our local media have reported on what appears to be Mayor Lenny Curry’s increasing frustration with Toney Sleiman’s management of this facility, they have mostly shied away from the more fundamental issue of why there is now so little viable retail activity there. The original reason for creating a Rouse Festival Marketplace here in Jacksonville was, after all, to bring retail businesses and dining back to the Downtown and, for a while, it seemed to succeed. Indeed, the real problem with The Landing is simply that—for whatever reasons—it is no longer succeeding in its intended role as a Downtown’s signature retail shopping facility.
The idea of bringing viable retail businesses back Downtown is so fundamental to any hope of reviving the kind of closeknit urban ecology that was lost in the 1980s that it frankly amazes me that so many people still do not seem to understand this. While The Jacksonville Landing may have failed in its role as a “magic bullet” to transform Downtown, it did—at least in its earlier years—provide some critically needed destination shopping for both visitors and local residents. Likewise, it became an iconic, town square-like space for civic gatherings and celebrations, as was most evident in the 2005 Super Bowl festivities. Since then, however, it seems to have lost a lot of its ability to serve in this capacity, and this has not escaped the notice of its many critics. Given this history, the two most salient questions about The Landing might be (1) Why does it seem to be failing in these roles, and (2) What might be done to revive its standing as an important facilitator of the commercial rebirth of our Downtown?
At the risk of committing planning heresy, let me suggest that the most critical problem facing The Jacksonville Landing and our Downtown is not coming up with a critically acclaimed architectural solution for a totally new structure but, rather, determining what it will take to get more viable retail stores, professional offices and restaurants back into this facility. From this admittedly contrarian perspective, what the Downtown needs most at this point—aside from the hoped-for success of all of the larger redevelopment projects that are now underway—is simply the infusion of more viable, customer-attracting retail businesses, and this ought to be Job One for everybody from the Mayor’s Office to the Downtown Investment Agency.
Again, coming up with a new design for The Jacksonville Landing that incorporates more residential development and open space, however excellent its architectural quality, is simply NOT the most pressing problem at hand. Rather, it is introducing more retail and small professional offices back into the matrix of our Downtown. The original reasoning behind the Festival Marketplace concept is more valid than ever today, and simply adding more residents to Downtown (as important as this is) will not, by itself, make the kind of real community that we are looking for.
Given The Landing’s all too obvious problems, what might be done along these lines? And, with all of the challenges that brick-and-mortar retailing is facing today, what kinds of stores might see the advantage of expanding into this urban shopping center? One answer is to begin with some of our stronger local retailers who can afford to take the plunge and open branch stores Downtown. Chamblin’s Uptown on Laura Street is a wonderful example of one such business, and we desperately need a few more visionary entrepreneurs like Mr. Ron Chamblin. As for the national chains, some like Ikea and Whole Foods seem to be either relatively immune from Internet competition or they are busily forming new synergistic relationships with it. These are the kinds of stores that we ought to be looking for, that have the corporate sophistication to understand that their customers are drawn from precisely the creative class that is now coming back to our Downtown.
Drawing on both the Downtown’s growing residential base and the population of its surrounding historic districts, there is an emerging need for more accessible retail and professional offices of all kinds, and it’s high time that the people in the old core city were given some better shopping alternatives than driving to St. Johns Town Center, Avenues Mall or River City Marketplace when they need to buy a dress shirt or a piece of kitchen equipment. Why not, then, have a “Stein Mart Downtown,” an “Ikea Downtown,” and a “Whole Foods Downtown” anchoring respective portions of The Landing?
Oh, right. The mayor and Toney Sleiman are having a well-publicized pissing contest, and they appear to be far too busy being unhappy with each other to consider viable alternatives to make The Landing work once again as the vibrant retail centerpiece of a functional Downtown. Moreover, if the city were serious about making The Landing work, it would be doing everything in its power to ensure that new anchor tenants could be persuaded to locate there and to quickly overcome all of the long-festering obstacles, such as providing adequate parking and the like. In similar fashion, the DIA would be working overtime to find financial incentives for retailers and give them the same kinds of inducements that residential and office projects routinely receive.
Mr. Sleiman, similarly, could then concentrate on his core expertise as an experienced retail property manager, making viable, long-term deals with his tenants that would serve the needs of everyone concerned. The idea of Toney Sleiman working with the mayor and the city toward this end may seem unlikely, but does anyone have a better alternative?
Finally, such a renewed emphasis on returning The Landing to its original purpose would hardly preclude remodeling the facility itself. Indeed, with the kinds of new, long-term anchor tenants that I have suggested, there might be a much clearer consensus about what changes/improvements are needed to make the whole thing work. The idea of opening up the center of the present Jacksonville Landing to provide a view of the river remains a good one, as it becomes the renewed focal point of the emerging Laura Street retail corridor. Likewise, a return to the days when Downtown was alight with seasonal decorations and glowing shop windows would be a wonderful signal that our Downtown is really “back.” If only more of our civic leaders could picture such a thing.
Hays is a retired community planner. Read his 2004 editorial on The Jacksonville Landing here.