Keen Is the Eye

As far as building the perfect life, Jen Jones had it all on paper – artistic talent, a satisfying career as a healthcare and corporate art designer, three beautiful children and the kind of passion that makes people stop talking and just listen. She took great care in fostering relationships, both personal and professional, and was always willing to lend an ear or a helping hand. Community visionary Vince Cavin was listening over lunch last fall when Jones confided in him that something was missing. She was lonely and longed to be part of a team of leaders that could teach her the things that she could not teach herself. She hungered to sink her teeth into something with substance, something that really mattered.
“I had finally identified why I was not feeling a lot of contentedness in my work life,” she says. “So I let the cat out of the bag.”
Across the bridge, the desolate stretch of landscape along Riverside Avenue east of the St. Johns River seemingly continued to resist all efforts to revitalize the lonely corridor. The manicured gardens of the Cummer Museum and the clean, architectural lines of the neighboring, new construction sat in stark contrast to the vacant wasteland littered with the accoutrements of the undesirables. In a not-so-distant past, the area was considered unsafe and a haven for illicit activities and the like. Small hints of promise flickered on the dark, neighborhood map, only to be stamped out by the heaviness of decay and neglect. But there was still the dream of a better future, if only someone could lead the way.
Jones was delighted when Alex Coley of NAI Hallmark Partners suggested she come by his office to learn more about his new venture, Unity Plaza. The project would reshape the empty parcel of Riverside Avenue into a multi-faceted, creative space with a mix of 18,000-square-feet of combined retail and restaurants and a 2,000-seat performing arts amphitheater.
She admits to having “zero awareness” as to why she was there. Maybe it was her involvement on various civic boards or her relationships within the art community. But it didn’t matter how she got there. What mattered was what lay ahead. Jones was elated that the project, which was in planning over the last 10 years, was finally coming to light and would serve as a beacon for artisans in all of the senses. It would be a completely self-sustained union of art, music, fellowship and educational opportunities for all ages and backgrounds. This could be that something big, that something that really mattered.
“It wasn’t until our second meeting that I realized I was being courted for a position,” Jones says. “I felt privileged to be receiving this information about something so special. I was in tears when I left, because I understood the breadth and the width and the depth of what they had been envisioning for Jacksonville. It had been in development for 10 years, and it was actually going to happen. I was overwhelmed that this space was going to exist for me to bring my children to.”
Imagine a dream–the most perfect dream that would elevate a city and its creative community to new heights. Now imagine that someone presents you with a set of blueprints and names you the architect of that perfect dream. When Alex Coley recently announced that Jen Jones was named the Executive Director of Jacksonville Unity Plaza, Inc., the not-for-profit organization that will oversee the project by the same name, it was as if he handed her the keys to the future, a concept she is only beginning to wrap her mind around.
She is not just sitting around crowing about her good fortune when there is work to be done. Jones is rolling up her sleeves and getting dirty. It takes a lot of work to shape an idea into a dream. “Right now, my position is chock-full of foundation setting responsibilities. I need to design the essential programming so its infrastructure needs are incorporated into the design of the Plaza, and start awareness-raising and not just from a donor perspective,” she says. “It is my responsibility to get inside citizens’ minds and hearts to gain an honest understanding of what this project should become, long-term, in order to represent the best of Jacksonville, as well as infuse the programming needed to bring home what’s been missing here. I am currently meeting with community leaders, thought leaders, educators and artists to get everyone excited and bring a ‘whole’ concept to fruition.”
Jones is so genuinely excited about the future of Unity Plaza that it’s nearly impossible not to share in her enthusiasm. Jones is already hard at work lining up experts to contribute their knowledge to every single niche of the campus from lighting to landscape. Musicians and sound engineers are assisting in the design of the amphitheater to enhance the quality of the acoustics.
“We want to make sure the amphitheater is very thoughtful and prepared, so we not only embrace great talent but give them a home they enjoy being in,” she says. “It’s such a phenomenally logistical location to create a cultural gem. We intend to have very special, high-end programming that is globally known with artists who enjoy an intimate environment. We designed the park in such a way that we can have ticketed events to help underwrite some of the costs of the plaza, but we can also have free events, too.”
Unity Plaza is slated for a July 4th opening, just in time for Independence Day festivities. Other seasonal events will feature the Easter Bunny, St. Patrick’s Day celebration and a stunning Christmas display with a “colossal Christmas tree” and plans to turn the lake into an ice skating rink for two weeks in December. Movies will be screened during a “Dive-In Movie Night.” Performances will include international artists, as well as local productions by the Douglas Anderson School for the Arts, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and the University of North Florida.
The design team is taking extra care to ensure that the outside matches the inside in terms of the “positive ju-ju,” says Jones. An unsightly retention pond was reconfigured to reclaim all of the stormwater runoff in the entire Brooklyn neighborhood and will also cleanse the water before it’s redeposited into the St. Johns River. The lake will also serve as a focal point to patrons in the amphitheater’s terrace seating, built on a natural, sloping grade directly into the lush landscape–a far cry from the dry earth and broken glass that has served as the property’s calling card for the last few decades as opportunities for development passed by.
In the lake’s center will be a 40-foot, art deco, bronze sculpture of a woman in the negative, covered in clear glass and lit from beneath. Water will flow through the sculpture, offering an unobstructed view of the St. Johns River. On the outer banks of the lake, two 16-feet bronze figures will be depicted diving in and out of the water, complementing the central fountain as well as the existing sculpture, “Winged Vision,” in Memorial Park.
“It’s very important for all of us involved that this be a space for transformation. And that transformation will come in the guise of performing and visual arts. It will also come in the guise of health and wellness and leadership conferences, as well as supporting other non-profits to give them a home,” Jones says. “This will be a space for everyone from all walks of life. It takes a village to build a dream–and a thoughtful and successful public-private partnership.”