The RCBC debate shows Downtown needs a master plan
Developers listened to public feedback and added a new restaurant to the River City Brewing Company development. This move turned a loss into a net gain – but it wouldn't have been necessary if Jacksonville had a publicly vetted master plan for what we hope to see Downtown.
Editorial by Bill Delaney.
Related Group’s initial proposal for the development included no restaurant. Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.
On October 2, the Downtown Investment Authority announced that River City Brewing Company was under contract by the Related Group, a Miami-based developer, who would demolish the structure for a new 335-unit apartment complex. The deal would see Related Group take over the city-owned property, with the DIA granting about $20 million in incentives, including tax rebates, free transfer of the property, and renovations of the marina and boat ramp.
Lori Boyer, CEO of the DIA, said she was in favor of the plan, but it drew opposition, including by us at The Jaxson and by members of #MappingJax, for removing one of the last remaining restaurants on the Downtown riverfront and an active amenity clustered with Friendship Fountain Park, the Southbank Riverwalk, and the Museum of Science and History.
The initial plan. Courtesy of the Downtown Investment Authority.
Members of the public voiced their concerns at the DIA Strategic Implementation Committee meeting on October 9. To his credit, DIA board member Oliver Barakat opposed the proposal for not having a restaurant. Boyer argued that the loss of River City Brewing would be mitigated thanks to some previously little known (or unknown) plans for nearby spaces. She revealed that Friendship Fountain would see a major enhancement, with a playground, splash pad, concessions and other active amenities, to be completed by December 2021. She also stated that a parcel of the city-owned property could be used to attract a “fish camp-style restaurant.”
Which is, well, fine? Replacing the restaurant while adding even more amenities nearby would certainly be a net gain to the overall area. Fortunately, the issue was mooted when Related Group listened to the public comments and Barakat and added a restaurant to their plans. Still, it’s nice to know that Boyer and the DIA had put a lot of thought into what’s happening in the area, but that raises a question…
Jacksonville’s siloing problem
A conceptual rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Friendship Fountain and the surrounding park. (Downtown Investment Authority)
Why was this DIA committee meeting the first time anyone heard about all this?
Comprehensive upgrades for Friendship Fountain Park and the possibility of adding a new restaurant would certainly impact the River City Brewing site. The public, who clearly had strong feelings on the subject, would have benefited from that information as they formulated opinions on the project. In fact – and this should go without saying – they deserve to have a say in what happens with our public waterfront property.
In short, Jacksonville has a siloing problem. Jacksonville’s city government has gained a reputation for freezing the public out of decision making. Notably, the administration did not allow public input on its controversial decision to buy and demolish the Jacksonville Landing, but that’s far from the only example. Too many decisions are made inside bubbles, insulated from other potential ideas, outside input and the public eye. And it’s not as if the tactic gets results: current state of Downtown is proof that keeping the public in the dark does not help downtown revitalization.
In the case of the DIA, there’s no reason or benefit to playing things so close to the chest. The DIA is a high visibility public agency with a substantial budget generously provided by taxpayers who expect a return on their investment. DIA clearly has some vision for the Downtown waterfront, and what little we’ve seen of it shows it could be a strong one. But citizens need to know what it is.
We need a Downtown master plan
In February 2015, Community Redevelopment Area Plans for the Northbank Downtown and Southside CRAs were completed for the DIA. However, this product fails to provide a clear vision for the downtown district as a whole or identify what should be developed on publicly owned properties and when this projects should be funded and constructed.
Fortunately, there’s a comparatively simple solution for this. Like many other downtowns that have successfully revitalized, Downtown Jacksonville needs a comprehensive, strategic, publicly-vetted master plan. DIA’s vision for the Southbank may be an excellent starting point.
Jacksonville is no stranger to plans and studies, but one thing that has evaded us is launching a holistic plan for Downtown and then sticking to it. Without a master plan (and equally importantly, following through on it), we tend to develop projects in isolation, without an idea of how they’ll work together with other existing amenities. A master plan would allow us to focus on clustering, where to place city amenities (parks, a convention center, etc.) that could spark private sector development, identifying which streets to concentrate retail on, and more.
A January 2019 plan for catalytic sites in Downtown Lakeland illustrating a vision for existing surface parking being fertile ground for office, retail and additional multi-family housing. The graphics illustrate what could be practical for the downtown’s future within current zoning regulations while also identifying the public catalytic investment site and project as a centrally located parking garage.
A master plan would also help private individuals and businesses make decisions about how best to invest in Downtown. Having a picture of where things are going long term could help in deciding everything from where to put your bar or restaurant to how your company’s downtown offices can play into Downtown’s direction down the road. In the case of River City Brewing, developers would have had a clearer picture of the expectations for a site, and the public would be able to see how this piece fits into the rest of the puzzle.
DIA should take the lessons of the River City Brewing debate to heart. Citizens deserve to know what our public officials are doing with our Downtown, and a chance to help develop and see through a long-term vision. The River City Brewing and other Southbank plans would be a perfect place to start. These are the kinds of projects you can build consensus, excitement and goodwill around, and not just among a select few over cocktails at the River Club.
Editorial by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com.