In Mayor Lenny Curry’s Jacksonville, wrecking balls and dynamite demolish buildings and roads. Curry envisions gleaming new office towers, residences and hotels that will fill the skyline and announce that Jacksonville is open for business. The only problem: Crony contractors and would-be developers seem to call the shots while taxpayers foot the bill.
One of the next structures to fall is the Hart Bridge ramp flying over Shad Khan’s Sports Complex into Downtown Jacksonville. (Note: The Sports Complex, situated more than a mile away from City Hall, is not Downtown.) The ramp is tentatively scheduled for demolition next year, funnelling traffic to Khan’s planned developments around the Jacksonville Jaguars’ TIAA Bank Field. Curry’s ramp renovation plans include nearly $40 million in local, state and federal tax dollars.
This sweep-and-clear approach stands in sharp contrast to cities like Savannah and Charleston which seek to preserve historical structures, which in turn can be catalysts for future development. Indeed, Charleston’s ex-mayor, James P. Riley Jr., spoke at a recent City Beautiful Jax meeting. He outlined his 40-plus years of service, during which he encouraged planning and reuse. Riley made Charleston a great city by finding creative ways to utilize existing structures which others wanted to condemn.
Environmental activists in Jacksonville believe the Hart Bridge ramp could be transformed through adaptive reuse with an ecological focus. “Adaptive reuse,” the hip practice in urban planning, involves using existing structures for new purposes. The primary reuse options are the creation of greenways and parks. Adaptive reuse projects have been completed in Atlanta, New York and Toronto.
Jimmy Orth, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog St. Johns Riverkeeper, has suggested the Hart Bridge ramp could be converted into a greenspace for pedestrians and cyclists. He observed that the river views afforded by the elevated ramp are among the best in the city. It may be possible, too, to incorporate them into Shad Khan’s development plans. Orth also believes the space underneath the ramp could be utilized for similar purposes.
“If Jax wants bring traffic from the Hart Bridge down to the street level, do it,” he posted on Facebook, “but don’t tear down the off-ramp. The views are amazing! Build over and under it, like they have done in NYC. It could be our High Line.”
New York City’s High Line is a park and pedestrian overpass adapted from an elevated Lower West Side Manhattan rail line that went out of service in the early 1980s. Completed in 2014, the project has since increased adjacent real estate values and transformed the area into a destination for visitors from around the world. It has also served as an inspiration. The High Line Network is a peer-to-peer group of infrastructure projects in increasingly dense urban areas around the country.
Orth believes Jacksonville’s leaders have been too quick, historically, to eliminate old buildings and infrastructure without considering their reuse. He told Folio Weekly, “We must think creatively to maximize the benefit of existing structures, if at all possible, especially if they can provide value to the local taxpayer.”
Architect and former Jacksonville mayoral candidate Bill Bishop would like to see Jacksonville follow a plan similar to Toronto’s Bentway Park, the first phase of which was completed in 2018, as a model for the Hart Bridge ramp. Bishop explained, “Toronto took a mile-long stretch of abandoned land under an elevated highway and turned into a great new urban park. It could be done here as part of the Metropolitan Park redevelopment project.” In Bishop’s vision, the area under the ramp could be transformed into a series of public spaces that would connect sections of Downtown with Metropolitan Park. Like the Bentway Park project, the finished product could host markets, festivals and other events.
In Miami, ground has been broken on a similar park, which will ultimately stretch 10 miles underneath the city’s Metrorail tracks. The Underline will serve as a linear park connecting neighborhoods and facilitating social exchange and healthy living from Downtown to Dadeland. The project is also intended to make the city safer for pedestrians. The National Complete Streets Coalition ranked Miami the 14th most dangerous in the nation for pedestrians. Jacksonville fared even worse, ranking sixth most dangerous.
While most citizens want safer streets and more green spaces, those concerns are facing a barreling freight train coming straight down the line, with Mayor Lenny Curry as engineer, as Shad Khan rides shotgun. Khan and Curry want to redirect “Downtown” development away from Downtown and toward the Sports Complex (note: not Downtown). And when the Hart Ramp’s demolished, there will be fewer structures in their way.