BACKPAGE EDITORIAL

Soft LANDING

Developer’s plan to revive Downtown’s “marketplace” is a step backward in urban development

Posted

This editorial was originally published on Feb. 3, 2004

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It's hard not to appreciate Toney Sleiman's infectious enthusiasm for redeveloping The Jacksonville Landing. In its present incarnation, the "festival marketplace" seems anything but festive, and most suburban strip centers offer more in the way of real shopping opportunities than the city's expensive experiment on the river. Moreover, with the prospect of accommodating an unprecedented number of Super Bowl visitors close at hand, selecting The Landing as a focal point for event-related activities makes a great deal of practical sense. The problem is that The Landing, in whatever fancy new packaging, will remain with us here in Jacksonville long after our Super Bowl visitors have gone home.

Indeed, the question that seems to be getting lost amid the hoopla about reinventing The Jacksonville Landing is what, precisely, it is supposed to do. While a refurbished Landing along the lines that Mr. Sleiman is proposing may indeed create a better "destination" for free-spending suburbanites and out-of-town visitors, it will do little to recreate the kind of infrastructure that supports viable urban communities. Worse, the large public subsidies that have been requested for The Landing's redevelopment may monopolize the very resources that are necessary to bring about a downtown renaissance. The inability and/or unwillingness of the city to complete the Main Street improvement project in Historic Springfield is the perfect illustration of starving smaller, more efficacious projects while spending tens of millions of dollars to subsidize speculative investment schemes.

Given the mixed history of Downtown redevelopment efforts in Jacksonville (the failure to properly redevelop LaVilla as a viable urban space is an all-too-visible case in point), it would be wise to consider all of the longer-term ramifications of the Sleiman proposal. Central to this kind of thinking is accepting that there are fundamentally different ways of viewing Downtown redevelopment. The problem is not so much that Jacksonville lacks the willingness to address the problems of the core city, but that officials haven't had a clear idea of what outcome they are seeking or the most appropriate mechanism to achieve it. As in most situations, it's good to have some concept of where you are going before you try to get there.

Historically, Jacksonville has chosen to focus on the "magic bullet" approach to redevelopment-that is, to seize upon a major project that will, through its size and impact, completely change the dynamics of an area. This was the thinking behind the original Jacksonville Landing, and it worked to a limited degree. It has transformed the character of the waterfront and firmly established the concept of a riverfront entertainment district. What The Landing has not done, however, is recreate the physical and social infrastructure that sustained the Downtown area as a real, livable urban place.

Downtown Jacksonville, for those of us old enough to remember, was once a vibrant urban center, with real department and specialty stores, professional offices, good restaurants, and entertainment venues of all kinds. As important, but often overlooked, there were convenient residential neighborhoods (both black and white) nearby that offered decent quality living space for the human beings who sustained all of this day-to-day urban activity. Most important, there was a self-sustaining synergy that resulted from this diversity of uses that made the Downtown district function as a real community. Astute observers of this process such as Jane Jacobs and others have chronicled in detail how this "urban ecology" actually works and what needs to be done to keep it healthy.

Without recounting the entire history of the suburban migration of the 1960s and '70s and the subsequent hollowing out of the core city, let us acknowledge that the process happened gradually, was in some ways inevitable, and that many opportunities to stem this decline were indeed lost. By the time Downtown's plight had become apparent in the 1980s, the "suburban" mentality was firmly entrenched in the minds of Jacksonville residents and most city planners. So little of the original urban ecology of Downtown Jacksonville remained, they believed, that other approaches to reclaiming the district made more sense than attempting to recreate what once had been there.  If the intricate functionality of the old Downtown was irretrievably lost, they reasoned, a new, urban theme park (think Disney) could be created in its place to draw visitors back. In this context, the original Landing made perfect sense.

More recently, however, the Downtown Development Authority and the Mayor's Office have turned to the concept of New Urbanism and have taken a more holistic approach. With its focus on creating more in-town residential facilities and understanding how the Downtown area works as an urban neighborhood, this approach has seen some impressive, if not yet conclusive, gains. At heart, this is a "bottom-up," one-step-at-a-time approach that asks what things are necessary for people to live together in a functioning urban setting.

If the Jacksonville City Council determines that it should support Sleiman's proposal for The Landing as presented, it should be aware that it is, philosophically, taking a major step backward from the city's more recent attempts at quality urban planning. As positive as the project may be in the context of preserving desirable activity on the city's riverfront, it is-at its conceptual core-another "magic bullet," a theme park development that promises more than it can actually deliver.

In the context of an overall urban design, this project could be a viable part of a new Downtown Jacksonville. But it must be understood that it is just one element of a much larger whole, not the single project that will miraculously transform the city.

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Hays is a retired community planner.

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