There’s a Google review floating in the Internet ether that quite accurately and succinctly sums up The Jacksonville Landing in its current state: a “ghost town and sadness on the waterfront.” True on both counts — but some context is needed.
When The Jacksonville Landing was in its heyday, during the Reagan-Bush era, it was a genuine destination. It had stores you didn’t see in the other malls in Jacksonville, such as Sharper Image (with its then-state-of-the-art videophones) and Banana Republic. People from the ’burbs drove there from far-flung Mandarin, as well as Orange Park and the Regency area, to see the new and the now, the latest and greatest, the mall on the river.
The Jacksonville Landing seemed, to those thinking about the issue at the time, as a way to reverse, perhaps, the red tide of retail streaming out of Downtown throughout the Jake Godbold era, those grand department stores never to be seen again in the urban core. Except that, well, the Landing seemed to be long on novelty and short on utility, lacking the mooring of even one true anchor store. It was as if the plan had been for a hot launch that somehow would sustain itself, indefinitely, once Sharper Image didn’t seem so sharp.
And there was, for a time, a bit of self-sustainability, in which the Landing’s location and genuinely revolutionary design overcame utilitarian concerns and allowed the mall to be a destination even though it didn’t sell much that anyone actually needed — the brick-and-mortar embodiment of a SkyMall catalogue, with a barren food court and a few tourist tchotchkes thrown in.
Most in Duval County believe the Landing itself was, prima facie, a failure, because none of us can remember the last time it thrived. And yeah, those of us who remember the Landing’s prime have lived through the back end of our own. The Landing was designed for a dying demographic. To walk through it is to traverse into a Hot Tub Time Machine vortex, where it’s always 1987 and every home had a bowl of jellybeans on a decorative table in the front atrium.
The year 1987 didn’t age very well, and the only thing still around from back then is Will Smith. Even he had a couple of reinventions.
In that context, Jacksonville Landing is long overdue for something. Something like the current proposal from Toney Sleiman to demolish and rebuild the Landing into a mixed-use area, with shopping, offices and apartments, not too far off from what’s planned at 220 Riverside. Sleiman asserts, as he told the Jacksonville Business Journal, that the proposal “follows the national urban living trend that we’ve seen work with massive success in Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville, Orlando and Austin.” It also jibes with industry assertions that malls will either have to convert or die.
That said, some people quibble with the artist’s renderings. Others wonder why the city should pony up the $11.8 million Sleiman wants for this project (good thing for him John Peyton isn’t still mayor). Despite these real questions, there’s really not a good counterargument to the idea that something needs to be done, and the logical path is mixed-use development.
We’ve seen what happens when nothing changes. Peep the Regency Square Mall area for a good example. Drive by it on a Saturday night; it looks closed. The mall is moot; the neighborhood is a dangerous eyesore. The only thing that could save it? Maybe an Ikea. Consider also the bygone retail titans, from Market Square to Gateway and Normandy. The showplaces of yesteryear; the squalor and blight of today and tomorrow.
The Landing hurtles toward analogous obsolescence, as it offers no reason to go there on a day-to-day basis. The Sleiman plan, combined with proposed Shipyards redevelopment, might be the shot in the arm our Downtown needs. The price may be high, but so is the price of doing nothing. As the city again addresses the issue of what to do with Downtown, leaving the Landing to languish would be foolish.