As the city of Jacksonville talks (again) about revitalizing Downtown, let's remember what could have (and should have) been – and those left behind
The voices are loud and clear: Bring back the Downtown Jacksonville boom period that existed in the '40s and '50s, when the city center was crowded all week, especially on Saturday night. The area was home to more than five hotels, four department stores, several movie houses, quality restaurants and specialty shops.
Contributing to Downtown's demise were a number of factors, including the construction of expressways such as Butler Boulevard; large landowners' power and influence to convince gullible or programmed city officials to provide an egress onto their property from expressways so their land could be developed; and finally, the consolidation of almost the entirety of Duval County into the city of Jacksonville. This led to massive residential development in the newly opened areas in the form of single-family homes, apartments and condominiums. Next came major retail malls, which followed the movement of people deserting Downtown.
There was still hope the urban core could be saved. In 1991, then-Mayor Ed Austin came up with a radical solution, "Jacksonville Insight." He wanted citizens to band together to describe their priorities for the long-term dynamic growth of our city, and offer suggestions to improve quality of life. He wanted citizens to "join with me to begin a visioning process that would have Jacksonville's people defining what they wanted the future of their city to be." At its peak, about 2,000 individuals were involved.
In June 1992, the 30-page report was released. In his introduction, Austin wrote, "From the beginning, it was determined that Jacksonville Insight would not be just another planning process that would end up a report to collect dust on someone's shelf. This vision will become a roadmap for our future. This is a roadmap to the future that will take us on a long journey … one beyond any single mayoral administration or council presidency." The mayor concluded: "We are here at the beginning of our journey. We have a roadmap in hand and everyone is on board. We know our destination, and now we have only to move forward."
More than 20 years on, Jacksonville Insight and its visions collect dust on someone's shelf.
The plan's visions were replaced by the already-established chicanery and deception at City Hall, which under consolidation has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars so far. It continued under the mayor's River City Renaissance program, announced in early 1993. These projects, costing more than $200 million, were supposed to be based on the Insight recommendations, but there was no relationship. The top priority in the Insight report was "Quality Education for All." The released list of Renaissance projects didn't mention aid to our crippled public school system. The closest thing to supporting education was $29 million allotted for an urgently needed new Central City Library.
In the final version of Renaissance, however, both the library and the $29 million vanished. The deletion was made without explanation, despite the literature pointing out the terrible shape of the then-existing library. The literature sheet even had a drawing of the proposed new library, which was finally built under the Better Jacksonville plan years later.
(Even then, there were questions about the architectural firm selected to build the library under Better Jacksonville. The sloppy process tainted quotes from the four firms submitting bids. The city hired a consultant, Heery International, to analyze the design and make a recommendation. Heery had worked with Robert A.M. Stern Architects on a "classical" design library in Nashville, and recommended the company's proposal in Jacksonville. That recommendation was challenged by the losing architects, who contended that Heery overestimated their design costs while lowballing Stern's. As the Times-Union noted, "Heery's report listed Stern's estimated cost of $51.4 million, but it did not include several multimillion-dollar items that were included in the costs for the other architects." Earlier this month, the T-U reported that that library had a number of construction problems that would cost the city more than $1 million to repair.)
To justify the $49 million the Renaissance allocated for the Gator Bowl, the city said in a report, "If we don't modernize, we are faced with losing the existing college games and relinquishing our competitive position to obtain NFL football. There is no cheap fix. We either do it right, or we need to abandon the stadium. Construction of a new stadium the size of the Gator Bowl could cost in excess of $100 million. For less than half the cost of a new one, we can have a state-of-the-art facility."
The ultimate cost of renovating the Gator Bowl, including interest and street changes, approached $300 million. The stadium retrofit alone cost $145 million.
One of the largest appropriations in Renaissance was $36 million for a Duval County Recreation Complex, which was designed to make the entrance from I-95 into Downtown more attractive. In a City Hall publication in 1993, Austin described it thusly: "The view from I-95 and the entrance to the central city projects a poor image of Jacksonville to more than 90,000 local motorists and tourists each day. LaVilla, a 50-block area bounded by I-95 and State, Broad and Forsyth streets, is a blighted section of deteriorating and abandoned buildings. The City proposes to develop a greenbelt ‘front door' to Downtown Jacksonville, stretching across LaVilla. Also included would be a major athletic and recreation complex serving the entire city."
This complex, he continued, would include a gym, running track, ballfields and an aquatic center. The Downtown Development Board promised "an aesthetically pleasing view of downtown and its enticing amenities." The estimated cost was $36 million. It was to be a "rebirth of our city."
Like the Central City Library, this project and the $36 million committed to it vanished.
Compare the vanished LaVilla project, which would have brought enjoyment to tens of thousands of both local citizens and visitors throughout the entire year, to blowing $43 million in borrowed funds on a gaudy, gargantuan scoreboard at EverBank Field to serve a relative handful of individuals maybe 15 to 20 days a year.
No wonder City Hall repeatedly screws the average citizen while selling out to powerful vested interests. The effect of River City Renaissance is just one instance of the manipulation of city funds that continues to the present day. Only the naïve will expect a change from the negative tradition.