For anyone who is interested in the future of the city, the northern stretch of the Riverwalk and its adjacent Riverside Avenue, recently dubbed the Riverside Corridor, is an important piece of Jacksonville to watch. Not only is it bringing innovative cultural, health, environmental, and educational improvements to our center, it is also showing the city a new form of community development. Attracting serious plans for new buildings and renovations, this area has been quite successful in grabbing the attention needed to unite a wide variety of players from across the city.

Unity Plaza

One of the major pieces of the up-and-coming Riverside Corridor is the 220 Riverside. The project’s groundwork along the tree-studded Riverside Avenue gives citizens a peek of what’s to come. This new apartment complex and family-living area is being built in conjunction with Unity Plaza, a multi-use, creative space that will boast a 2,000 seat amphitheatre. Both are slated to open next year. The project hopes to be a cultural epicenter for the city’s urban core, akin to a downtown “Central Park.”

This project’s development follows a recurring trend, one popping up not only in Jacksonville, but in places all over the country: growing partnerships between private firms and nonprofit organizations. All of the U.S. has had to struggle with the setbacks of the Great Recession; many of our local governments are still very much wrestling with major budget constraints, and communities are being forced to look for creative partnerships to see development in their areas. The Unity Plaza is a prime example of this hybrid. While it is primarily an undertaking by three private property development firms, Hallmark Partners, MAA, and Bristol Development Group, the creative space is going to be managed by a nonprofit organization, Unity Plaza, Inc., with the aim of providing the public with arts programming throughout the year.

“Collaboration between nonprofits is nothing new, and nonprofits have always relied on other parts of the sector for volunteers, funding, or things like that. But now, we’re seeing nonprofits as equal partners in other kinds of collaborations,” says Rena Coughlin, CEO of the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida. “Our results from public surveys show that nonprofits are more trusted than private, government, or any other entity that we’ve tested. People trust nonprofits, and thats a huge advantage for businesses who want to get something done. So now there is a new flow of nontraditional partnerships.”

“Jacksonville is chock full of thought-leaders and change-agents, not commanding our city government to improve Jacksonville, but physically being the catalyst for change they seek in our community,” says Jen Jones, Executive Director of Unity Plaza. “Historically, we have had very limited cultural support from our city government. Therefore, a bottom-up leadership approach has emerged. We are comfortable collaborating, pulling up our sleeves and facilitating the work, fundraising and bringing other thought-leaders into our working plans for a better Jacksonville. These thoughtful and inspired people will coalesce on the grounds of Unity Plaza and give rise to the ideas that shape Jacksonville’s brilliant future.”

The Cummer

To see further along this wave of future of community development, you have to go no farther than a few hundred feet on Riverside Avenue to the Cummer Museum and Gardens. It may seem surprising that the Cummer, an organization that is best known for preserving the past, is one of the city’s forerunners in contemporary development. The Cummer unveiled two major projects this past April, the renovated Olmstead Gardens and their sustainably developed, refurbished parking lot, both of which are part of their greater unified sustainable landscape design and the Riverside Avenue Landscape Enhancement Project. Their new Olmstead Garden was created to incorporate more native plants, and, as is done throughout all of their grounds, its horticultural care is completely organic. The recently debuted parking lot is one of the first and largest in Jacksonville to be made from a permeable surface, central to natural stormwater management. Many of these steps to become more environmentally sustainable have been in partnership with another fellow local nonprofit, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. Continuing their initiative to incorporate environmentally sustainable designs in their expansion, the museum will also soon feature an outdoor cafe and the Delores Barr Weaver and J. Wayne Weaver Public Sculpture Garden. Both will be located on the museum’s front lawns, making them more welcoming and accessible to the general public.

“The Cummer is an old institution, and in the past it has been perceived as conservative, almost exclusive,” says St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director James Orth. “But actually, now they are the ones that are taking the lead to become sustainable. They are taking value in their investments, and that says a lot about their culture. They are looking to the future. In the future, you have to be environmentally sustainable, and they’ve already made a real commitment.”

The Riverwalk Project

The St. John’s Riverkeeper hasn’t only had its hand in helping the Cummer. If you were at OneSpark, you may have seen their plans for a new, mobile app being made in conjunction with the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida, Art in Public Places, the Jacksonville Historical Society and Brunet-García Advertising. Via GPS tracking, an interactive website, and kiosks and signage along the Riverwalk, the Riverwalk Project app enables users to easily access information about the river and Jacksonville in four major areas: health, environment, arts & entertainment, and history.

Yates YMCA

If the upcoming cultural and environmental additions to the budding Riverside Corridor don’t excite you, maybe another piece of real estate along Riverside Avenue that is set to change will. The YMCA of Florida’s First Coast has already begun an extensive campaign to help fund a brand new, renovated Yates YMCA building. The $21 million dollar project will replace the popular, but aging, Riverside Y location. Not only will the building feature new workout facilities for its patrons, it will become a wider part of the community with a new “Healthy Living Center.” This center will offer health services to locals of the area in order to tackle some of the major health issues plaguing the First Coast, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. There will also be space for other community programs to promote literacy, healthy habits, leadership, and summer programs for area children.

Northbank Riverwalk Extension

It is not only private and nonprofit ventures that are a part of the development in the Riverside Corridor. The Jacksonville City Council recently approved plans to lengthen the Northbank Riverwalk to connect all the way to Riverside Park in Five Points. To clarify, Riverside Park sits directly across from the shops of Five Points and is not to be confused with the riverfront Memorial Park. Some hold a hope that someday the Northbank Riverwalk will eventually connect to Memorial Park. In the past, there was some opposition to such plans, as it would alter some of Jacksonville’s most valuable waterfront real estate, but some of the actors such as the Cummer have had a change of heart. Hope McMath, the Cummer’s Executive Director, has recently announced that the Cummer would not stand in the way of any proposals to lengthen the Riverwalk and would, in fact, welcome the opportunity for the public to have the space next to the river and a peek into the Cummer’s famous gardens.

“The Cummer is really interested in exploring how to leverage our campus improvements and innovative programming to create a closer relationship between the diverse entities along the Riverside Avenue corridor,” says McMath. “By bringing together the efforts of the business, nonprofit, arts and culture, and government sectors we can create something that is a model corridor of artfulness, walkability, economic vitality and environmental sustainability. It is through non-traditional collaborations that we will make Jacksonville all it aspires to be.”

The Northbank, one of Jacksonville’s finest assets, is finally getting some much deserved love and attention for the next couple of years. It is one of city’s few walkable arteries connecting two major parts of town. It is also undeniably the most picturesque. It is only natural that as Jacksonville looks to re-energize its urban core, this pathway along the St. Johns and its near surroundings are already playing an important role. This is a unique amenity that Jacksonville offers because of a beautiful river and the intensive work from the people that care about it.

The fruits of a brainstorm between a Riverkeeper exec and an architect

“In addition to the Riverwalk Project, I see great possibilities for our Riverwalk,” says Mr. Orth. “It is one of our greatest parks with significant public access to the river, but it could be even much better by making it more interactive, educational, and engaging. In the past, I have met with Melody Bishop, a local architect, who helped design the Riverwalk. The Riverwalk could be used as a tool to demonstrate the use of sustainable practices, like green infrastructure, and the use of native plants and their benefits. Here are some of things we discussed and ideas that could be incorporated:

  • Emphasize drought-tolerant, native plant landscaping. This contributes to our sense of place, has educational value, and provides habitat. It could have a butterfly garden or even a community vegetable garden somewhere.
  • Use of LID (low impact development) practices or green infrastructure to manage stormwater such as permeable pavers, swales, bioretention cells/rain gardens, even rainwater harvesting.
  • Educational components like discrete and coordinated educational/informative signage, and possibly some type of hands-on activity stations.
  • Play areas for kids which could as simple as rocks or simulated turtle shells that they can walk across, playgrounds, scavenger hunt, etc. This could also include interactive art installations.

About Morgan Henley