As downtown development moves from fantasy to reality, Groundwork Jacksonville is increasing park space and connecting neighborhoods.
The Emerald Trail broke ground earlier this month with an ecological restoration project at McCoys Creek. The greenway will link 16 neighborhoods in the urban core with about 30 miles of bicycle/pedestrian trails.
Groundwork Jacksonville raised private funds to build the trail’s masterplan in collaboration with the community and PATH Foundation. City Council adopted the plan in 2019, and last month they voted to double the gas tax and allocate $132 million in construction funds to the Emerald Trail.
This took a cut out of the $347 million that JTA had requested––four cents of every gallon of gas––for improvements to the Skyway. The automated people mover cost $183 million to build in 1989 and operates at a loss of at least $10 million each year.
While JTA has plans to expand and add an expensive autonomous vehicle network with no guarantee of increased ridership, the Emerald Trail’s plan is crystal-clear, sustainable and community-based.
It’s also got a basis for the economic impact that it will bring. Trail systems like Chicago’s 606 and New York’s High Line have restored neighborhoods and stimulated local businesses. In Atlanta, the BeltLine has cost $600 million and returned $6 billion in economic development.
Developers have already started buying properties in the area under the promise of life that the trail will bring to the area.
“We set out to make this a community project. Not a city project, but a community project,” said Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Kay Ehas. “That’s how you ensure it’s designed as a nationally renowned trail system and built that way. That’s our goal, not something mediocre.”
It’s been a hundred years in the making. A hundred years ago, famed architect Henry Klutho envisioned a greenway encircling downtown.
“It took a nonprofit to bring it to reality, which I think is awesome,” said Ehas.
Groundwork is factoring in the challenges that the past century has brought about. The nonprofit came to Jacksonville under former mayor Alvin Brown’s administration to clean up underserved neighborhoods, which have been subjected to industry, poverty and gentrification. The Emerald Trail will restore the natural life and culture in these neighborhoods in a move toward environmental justice.
The plan is to create a world-class greenway with local labor and native plants. The plan is to hire and train people in each neighborhood to do high-level gardening and landscaping to build and preserve the trail system. Its use of green infrastructure will streamline the trail’s maintenance in a natural rhythm with the earth that it’s built upon.
“The neighborhoods that we are going through, we look at as our partners in designing the project. And we want them to help start it and maintain it, like they really feel ownership over it,” Ehas said.
While the Beltline had to retrace its steps by creating affordable housing around the trail after many people had already been displaced, the Emerald Trail’s team is working to address gentrification before it happens.
“There’s enough vacant buildings and vacant land in the urban core to add economic diversity and stabilize a neighborhood without kicking people out,” said Ehas.
The neighborhoods have been perpetually in mind in creating the Emerald Trail project. In making the masterplan, Groundwork had monthly meetings to address community concerns. Everything from landscaping to art will be in the hands of people that live in each neighborhood.
The communities are culturally rich and walkable, but it’s not easy to travel from one to the next without a car. The Emerald trail will provide safe paths away from traffic to get from San Marco to Sugar Hill without having to use a vehicle.
“Places are closer than you think, but not easy to get to if you’re biking or walking,” said Ehas.
According to the Dangerous by Design study from 2021, Jacksonville is ranked among the worst cities for pedestrian safety. The trail’s masterplan has 90% off-street trails, so bikers and pedestrians can be safe in a city full of cars.
Though the plan could take up to 10 years to complete, organizers are taking it segment by segment, thus enriching each neighborhood with its own cultural and economic development. Construction will begin on a segment connecting Lavilla to the existing S-Line by September.