A recent letter to the editor in The Florida Times-Union proclaimed, "We must accept reality. The St. Johns Town Center is Jacksonville's new center city."
The writer, a 30-year resident of Jacksonville, bemoaned all the wasted time leaders have spent trying to revitalize the city's core. Why, he wondered, would people choose to go Downtown when hundreds of stores await at the St. Johns Town Center?
"Do I drive to a shopping area with great stores and parking galore? Or do I drive the same distance to an area that is consumed with vagrants, no convenient parking, blocks of vacant high-rise buildings with bars on the windows to stop vandalism and hundreds of panhandlers who have taken over and live outdoors?"
Never mind his flair for hyperbole. "Consumed with vagrants"? "Hundreds of panhandlers"? He must be confusing Downtown Jacksonville for Manhattan. And don't get me started how the age of front-door parking has warped our sense of what's a fair distance to walk from a parking spot.
Can you imagine a Simon Mall and its surrounding shopping centers fulfilling the role of a city center?
Would Simon allow activists to gather signatures for a petition to place a library tax district on the ballot in front of Dick's Sporting Goods? Or to congregate around the duck pond to protest government action in Syria or to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act? Would a corporation appreciate the funky free speech practiced at First Wednesday Art Walk or One Spark? Would food trucks be welcomed or seen as competitors to the mall's restaurants?
Perhaps city government should move there, too, because that's where the people are. And if you attended a public meeting, you could park for free (although in reality you'd probably walk just as far as you would Downtown), as long as you patronized one of the many fine establishments. It would be the ultimate expression of our consumer society.
St. Johns Town Center and many other shopping destinations perform an important function. I patronize some of those stores, although I wish more were locally owned so that a larger chunk of that money stayed in our local economy.
But the St. Johns Town Center is a place to shop, not the heart of a city. A city center should shout its own specific character and style, not the ubiquitous brands plastered on storefronts from coast to coast. It should be a place for citizens to practice their constitutional rights without corporate oversight.
Downtown Jacksonville is troubled, but you can't ignore the progress that has been made. Its problems took time to develop, and it will take time to solve them.
There are some vacant buildings, but several have been bought and are being developed. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund is renovating the old Haydon Burns Library into an office complex for philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. SouthEast Holdings purchased the Laura Street Trio (Florida Life, Bisbee and Florida National Bank, also known as the Marble Bank, at Laura and Forsyth streets) to create a complex featuring a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, two restaurants, a commercial bank and a rooftop bar. SouthEast also bought the Barnett Bank building at Adams and Laura streets but has not announced its plans.
Destinations like the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and the Museum of Science and History draw people to both sides of the river. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Riverside and the Karpeles Manuscript Library in Springfield are nearby draws to the core. Dozens of art galleries feature constantly rotating shows of local and national artists. The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville awards grants to artists to create public works in the core and helps galleries find spaces in the area.
Downtown restaurants continue to be some of the best in the region, and more keep popping up along with several successful food trucks.
Although Downtown might not be a shopping mecca, several stores offer unusual and distinctive finds as well as local services. The wildly successful Chamblin's Uptown (I've always wondered why Uptown instead of Downtown?) is a cultural hangout for all ages. Businesses like EverBank are realizing the benefits of moving Downtown, and their employees are, too.
A magnificent Main Library hosts regular community events and maintains a fabulous collection. First Wednesday Art Walk, Community First Saturday, concerts at The Florida Theatre, shows at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, events at the Veterans Memorial Arena, games at the Sports Complex — the list goes on.
More than a dozen bars and nightclubs feature live music several nights a week from local and touring bands and DJs.
Special events are popping up all the time, such as Jaxtoberfest at the Shipyards Oct. 11-12 and an Oktoberfest-themed Art Walk Oct. 2.
Some groups have ideas about adding more attractions to Downtown. AquaJax wants to place a world-class aquarium on the riverfront. Another group has plans to permanently dock the USS Charles F. Adams in an area such as the Shipyards.
The City Council Finance Committee cleared $1.5 million for the Downtown Investment Authority to hire a staff and get to work with its new CEO Aundra Wallace. The committee also returned $4.1 million of the million it was awarded earlier this year to help make projects happen.
All of these are positive signs for making Downtown a true city center.
One major project that needs to be addressed: Hemming Plaza. It should be the centerpiece of the city's center. It needs a new purpose like an amphitheater, a new look with softer landscaping and a person dedicated to programming events, bands and performances into the space.
Then, we can have a center that belongs to citizens, not Simon.