Hurricane Irma activates Jacksonville's riverfront

September 10, 2017

Seeking shelter from Hurricane Irma, the First Coast shrimping and fishing fleet brings a little nostalgia back to the days when downtown Jacksonville was known as being an active working waterfront.

In a strange twist of fate, the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma and the long abandoned piers of the defunct Jacksonville Shipyards have resulted in a bit of authentic Jacksonville returning to its historic downtown waterfront. Massive concrete piers built to complement the largest drydocks between Newport News and New Orleans, have become a key player in protecting the First Coast's shrimping and fishing fleet from Hurricane Irma. Roughly two dozen vessels normally docked in Mayport, Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine headed to the old Shipyards docks, due to them being more vulnerable to the hurricane if left exposed on the Atlantic coast.

As a result, long empty and underutilized riverfront frontage has been temporarily transformed into a scene of local maritime-related activity that has not been witnessed in Downtown Jacksonville in decades. While the scene is only visual and temporary, it does make one wonder if portions of the underutilized downtown riverfront should be carved out for interactive uses such as fishing, trawling and docking of commercial fishing vessels.

After all, according to the Florida Statutes (379.247), commercial trawling is permissible on the St. Johns River north of the Acosta Bridge. In addition, the river south of downtown is a popular destination for commercial crabbing. History has shown what can happen when we use public spaces to cluster complementing uses within a compact setting. Small nondescript places can become regional destinations, stimulating foot traffic leading to additional business opportunities, job creation and ultimately establishing an authentic and unique sense-of-place.

San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf

In San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf has been the home base of that city's fishing fleet since the 19th century. Since the 1980s it's morphed into a well known tourist attraction as well. In Tarpon Springs, FL, the Anclote River has served as the community's Sponge Docks since the early 20th century. Now a popular destination for Tampa Bay area tourists, the Sponge Docks have evolved into a district where the maritime industry, entertainment, dining, and culture co-exist to celebrate the city's Greek heritage. As Jacksonville ponders what will ultimately become of its downtown riverfront, perhaps some consideration should be given to embracing the concepts of a working waterfront.

Tarpon Springs' Sponge Docks

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro and — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at

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