The year of the Downtown public space

At long last, several high profile park projects across Downtown Jacksonville have opened this year, with more following in the coming months. With Friendship Fountain reopened in February, the Emerald Trail’s LaVilla Link launched last week and Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park opening in June, 2024 is already on track to be the most significant year in recent history for Downtown public spaces. Here’s a look at these projects and more coming down the pipeline.

Friendship Fountain Park

After years of delays, an iconic part of Jacksonville’s riverfront finally returned to service in February. Designed by Jacksonville master architect Taylor Hardwick, Friendship Fountain originally opened in 1965, when it was celebrated as the highest-shooting fountain in the state. Long a favorite spot of photographers and Riverwalk patrons, the fountain had serious renovations in 1985, 2001, and 2011.

Ongoing issues with the fountain’s aging parts in the 21st century led the Downtown Investment Authority to propose a $6 million overhaul in 2019. Its jets were shut off in 2021 with work expected to be complete by early 2022, but ongoing delays caused it to be in operation only sporadically for nearly two years.

Mayor Donna Deegan made reopening Friendship Fountain a key Downtown priority when she assumed office in July 2023. DIA and the city’s Parks and Recreation department worked to complete the project, which now includes updated mechanics and nightly water shows coordinated with lights and sound. Friendship Fountain reopened to much fanfare on February 15, making it the first of several Downtown parks to open in 2024.

Further plans for the wider space near Friendship Fountain are also progressing. In addition to the fountain and Riverwalk access, future upgrades will include a play park inspired by Jacksonville’s Timucuan and French colonial history, a botanical garden and a restaurant.

The Emerald Trail’s LaVilla Link

A second high-profile Downtown public space opened just this week with the official ribbon-cutting of the LaVilla Link, the first segment of Groundwork Jacksonville’s ambitious Emerald Trail system. The LaVilla Link is a shared-use bike and pedestrian trail that serves as the “Model Mile” (it’s actually about 1.3 miles) for the wider Emerald Trail system. The $4 million project stretches from Park Street in Brooklyn through LaVilla and New Town where it connects with the existing S-Line Urban Greenway Trail.

Groundwork Jacksonville has spearheaded the Emerald Trail though more than 10 years of planning and development under three mayoral administrations. A true long-term partnership between Groundwork, the City of Jacksonville, Jacksonville Transportation Authority and other partners, when it’s complete the Emerald Trail will span 30 miles, connecting parks and amenities across at least 14 neighborhoods in the Urban Core. In March, the Emerald Trail received the largest federal grant in city history – $147 million – to ensure its continued progress and completion.

Other sections are already under construction or design. The McCoys Creek extension, which connects to the LaVilla Link and the Northbank Riverwalk, involves the daylighting and restoration of McCoys Creek in Brooklyn. Soon to come is the Hogan Street Link, which will connect Hogans Creek to the Northbank Riverwalk through Springfield and the core of Downtown.

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park

Another Downtown public space is coming next month. Directly connected to the LaVilla Link, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park is currently wrapping up construction at the intersection of Lee and West Adams streets. This space is the birth site and former family home of two renowned Jaxsons, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. A project of the city of Jacksonville’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, in conjunction with DIA and other partners, the park was designed by prominent landscape architect Walter Hood.

The park space has deep if long-overlooked importance in Jacksonville history. It was here that the Johnson brothers wrote the famed hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem. In his autobiography, James Weldon Johnson recalled composing the song for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. Walking back and forth on the porch, Johnson described the words flowing from him in a fit of poetic ecstasy. As he completed the verses, he passed them off to Rosamond, who set them to music at the piano.

Though too long in being recognized, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park is an example of Jacksonville capitalizing on its rich history and cultural heritage, and one of several public commemorations of the Johnson brothers in their hometown. Opening in June, it will also be the third long-awaited city park space to open this year.

Artist Walk Skatepark

A rendering of Artist Walk Skatepark. | City of Jacksonville

Another project on the schedule for 2024 is a new skatepark opening under the Fuller Warren Bridge near the Riverside Arts Market. Part of the larger Artist Walk project, which will feature art displays and a multi-use bike and pedestrian connection to the Riverwalk, the skatepark has been a long hoped for amenity by Riverside residents and local skaters alike.

The initial concept was proposed back in 2013 by The Jaxson’s Mike Field and pro skater Mike Peterson, who funded initial designs and advocated for the project. After receiving buy-in from FDOT and the neighborhood, the park finally began progressing a few years ago. FDOT hired California Skate Parks, designers of skateboarding facilities across the world, to custom-build a new park for the space. It features a variety of ramps and rails, including skateable art in the shape of the letters JAX. The skatepark is expected to open in summer 2024, with the rest of the Artist Walk coming next year.

Other upcoming projects

The proposed Shipyards West park site plan. | Downtown Investment Authority

The opening of these high-profile projects will attract thousands to Downtown this year. Meanwhile, progress is happening on several other long-awaited spaces.

Riverfront Plaza, the former site of the Jacksonville Landing, but has made considerable progress since construction started in July 2013. In 2019, the city initiated an ill-advised plan to purchase the Landing, evict its tenants, and demolish the structure. Despite a taxpayer cost of $25 million, the space remained a seldom-used lawn for the next four years.

Under CEO Lori Boyer, DIA contracted Perkins & Will to redesign the dead lot as an urban park, and moving the project forward has been a major initiative of Mayor Donna Deegan. Work began in earnest at the start of her term in July 2023 with the rerouting of Independent Drive to increase the space available for the park. Subsequent work includes the reconstruction of the bulkhead and Northbank Riverwalk, as well as the construction of a roof-mounted playground above a cafe, a riverfront restaurant, festival lawn, walkways and other amenities.

Other significant projects are in the works for Downtown Jacksonville. Two-waying projects for Downtown streets, the design of Shipyards West and Metro Park, and a road diet for Park Street in Brooklyn that could spark a new round of investment are all planned for the next few years. While none of these are necessarily the “silver bullet” for Downtown’s woes on their own, they represent a series of positive steps in the right direction.

Taken together, the opening and continued progress of these Downtown public spaces proves that successful urban revitalization is not about finding a big “game changer” project that will finally deliver us from our woes. Instead, strategic planning, long-term followthrough and delivery on attainable incremental steps are the path toward truly changing the game for Downtown Jacksonville.