Downtown Jacksonville has often gotten a bum rap from the city’s residents. Lifelong locals lovingly–or not so lovingly–refer to their city as a “fake city” or a “pseudo-city” since the majority of the population has grown up on the outskirts of Downtown-proper, only venturing to the city’s center for the occasional field trip to MOSH or a jaunt to The Landing. Until a few years ago, the skyline was the only city-like feature downtown Jax possessed. Finally, however, that impression is beginning to change.
Local business owners, investors, and artists have begun slowly transforming Downtown into a lively place to live, work and play. The work part, of course, is well known: the skyline is littered with buildings that house centralized headquarters for several major corporations. The appeal to live and play–and view unique art–in the area has grown steadily over the last decade. This expansion includes several strips of popular bars and the addition of new restaurants, as well as steady patronage of regular events such as Art Walk and the Riverside Arts Market, among others. The combined effects have created a much more positive vibe in the area.
Those who have lived there, at the heart of that transformation, have watched it all happen, most rapidly in the last few years. Over that time, they have formed their own impressions on how these progressive changes have come about and about what the future might hold for the city’s center.
Josh Taylor has lived in downtown Jacksonville for most of his adult life. As the founder of the 5 & Dime Theater Company, a “nomadic theater company,” he occasionally works in the area as well. Over the years, he has watched the downtown area transform. “It’s very frustrating for me with Downtown, because you see all the potential, and up until recently you didn’t really see anything happen to it,” says Taylor. “But I think in the last few months, Jacksonville has come into it’s own. It’s sort of finding its way, and it’s exciting.”
Taylor, a resident of the Metropolitan, attributed the change to a variety of factors, mostly stemming from investors who are willing to take a chance. Shahid Kahn, the newest owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is chief among them, says Taylor. Most recently, Kahn purchased several downtown buildings, including the Marble Trio and the former Barnett Bank building, with the intention of bringing in more residential and retail presence. For the Barnett building, Kahn even reportedly plans to install a site for higher education. “It seems like every time you turn around, he is trying to do something to help Downtown,” says Taylor. In particular, Kahn pledged a million dollars to supporting one or more lucky participants in the recent One Spark Festival. Taylor reports that there are rumored to be 6 or 7 creators whom Kahn and his team may have selected, although none have yet been announced.
According to Taylor, the initial momentum and final outcomes of the One Spark Festival can also be credited with inciting new optimism for growth and change in Downtown. Two of the winners will be working over the next few months to bring large-scale artistic works to several downtown buildings, those both occupied and vacant. Beyond that, though, the festival brought a sense of life and vibrance to the area seldom seen. “That was revolutionary,” says Taylor. “I think that’s really the key, just bringing people to energize more of the downtown area.”
The lack of foot traffic and teeming city life that has historically characterized Jacksonville’s downtown contributes to a greater share of the problem than may be immediately obvious, according to Taylor. One of the glaring criticisms of Downtown has always been a high population of homeless people. “People always give Downtown a bad rap because of the homeless situation, but in my experience there are just as many homeless people in downtown Jacksonville as there are in any other city,” says Taylor. The increase in foot traffic that occurred at One Spark, and that appears during any major downtown event, obscured the presence of that population. “When you fill the streets with residents, with other people from the community, the homeless people aren’t that apparent anymore,” says Taylor. “They’re still there, but they’re not glaringly obvious because they’re not the only people on the street.”
Another issue may be the conflict between what should come first: residential development or retail development. In past years, Jacksonville has been “stuck” in furthering growth on each because of a lack in the other. Now, says Taylor, “I think something has changed. Something has snapped.” Perhaps its just lingering optimism from the excitement of One Spark, but Taylor feels the city has finally reached that turning point, from a pseudo city to a real one. “Everyone just seems to have a very optimistic outlook about Downtown now whereas they didn’t before,” says Taylor. “People were quicker to dismiss Downtown or call on its faults than focus on what it could actually be.”
Richard Stoecklein, owner of The Toy Factory at The Jacksonville Landing, has lived and worked Downtown for 11 years. He and his wife were among the first to settle at the Berkman Plaza, which opened in 2002 during the housing boom that inspired many ambitious projects in all parts of the city. Stoecklein says he remembers a different downtown when he first moved here in 1987, a time when the new courthouse building was a department store and when residential living in the area was nonexistent. Much has changed since then.
As a business owner in the heart of downtown’s business district, Stoecklein was especially attuned to the recession and its immediate effects on the area. This, he says, was a major reason for the stop-and-start growth that Downtown has experienced so much over the years. “In the early 2000s it was really starting to gain momentum, both Downtown and at The Landing,” says Stoecklein. “Then, here comes that recession and everything just stopped.”
Stoecklein’s toy store has resided in The Jacksonville Landing for 25 years. He is one of the few original tenants of the building, so he was forced to watch other storefronts empty out rapidly after 2006, many sitting unused for years due to the challenges of a poor economy. “We lost our coffee place, of all things,” says Stoecklein.
Since 2009, however, businesses in the downtown area have finally begun to recover and expand once more. “It started chugging along again, ever so slowly. You almost didn’t even notice,” says Stoecklein. He reports that The Landing is almost full again and that he has noticed an increase in his own business due to an influx of foot traffic from local conventions and festivals.
While an improved economy, along with the cosmetic overhaul of Downtown during preparations for the Super Bowl, has helped urge these developments along, Stoecklein also listed another source for growth in the area: local artists. “The art scene is really driving everything,” says Stoecklein, “which is very cool because they can fill up a lot of empty spaces with art. That’s been a huge help.” The presence of the Riverside Arts Market and the Art Walk have both brought more attention to the area, which has in turn fueled interest of local entrepreneurs.
While progress is definitely noticeable, Stoecklein says that other problems still exist. Parking, for instance, is a major topic of customer complaints. He is looking forward to the completion of a major parking garage nearby which should, he hopes, eliminate that issue.
Stoecklein also has concerns about the distance of the city’s major convention center from the heart of the downtown area. While the Prime Osborn Convention Center is connected to The Landing and other parts of downtown by the Skyway, it is not within walking distance to the city center. This, says Stoecklein, is a problem that needs to be fixed. He even suggests using the old courthouse building as the site for a new one. “It just seemed a no brainer to me to tear it down and build a convention center,” says Stoecklein. “It’s right on the river and right next to a hotel. I just don’t know why they’re dragging their feet on that either. I mean I know there’s a lot of money involved, . . . but there it sits, doing nothing.”
Overall, with his riverfront view and the convenience of being able to walk to work or to local restaurants and shows, Stoecklein says, “I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s like I’m on vacation, except I have to work.” Taking groceries up to his 20th floor condo may be a nuisance, but the overall convenience and beauty of the riverfront area has Stoecklein hooked. Plus, says Stoecklein, “It’s a great place to walk a dog, too.”