Last night, after hours of discussion and months of controversy, Jacksonville’s city council voted by the narrowest of margins to reject the proposed Lot J development from the Jaguars and The Cordish Companies. And while some residents were happy to see the council take their concerns seriously, others were decidedly less optimistic – including Mayor Lenny Curry himself.
“This sends a clear and negative e [sic] message to economic development in our downtown and city,” Curry tweeted last night immediately following the council vote. Others, including various Jaguars morning radio personalities, have offered similar sentiments insisting that, without Lot J going forward, downtown Jacksonville is permanently destined to fail.
That simply isn’t true, and to explain why, perhaps it would be appropriate to think of downtown development in football terms.
Lot J represented a clear attempt at a “Hail Mary” play – trying to go for a quick touchdown to get points on the board as soon as possible. It’s a play call that is utilized almost exclusively when time is running out, usually right before the end of the game.
Here’s the problem: downtown Jacksonville hasn’t gotten to the end of the game yet. After being neglected and even actively destroyed by local politicians for decades, the city has only recently started attempting in earnest to get it back on track in the past few years. And there’s no firm deadline being sought – aside from reaching 10,000 residents within the next few years, which Lot J by itself obviously wouldn’t have accomplished.
At best, in this metaphor, downtown Jax is somewhere in the middle of the second quarter. There’s no practical need to aim solely for the end-zone right now, after years of steady, incremental progress that includes the completion of The Barnett’s revitalization, surpassing 6,000 residents downtown for the first time in decades, and reducing the downtown office vacancy rate to under 15%.
Instead, the city should be looking to complete more relatively short pass plays, so to speak. Projects like the proposed adaptive reuse of the historic Ambassador Hotel and Independent Life buildings, the continued development of affordable housing complexes, and the proposed mixed-use development at the Ford on Bay may not be quite as exciting, nor do they come with pie-in-the-sky renderings that generate instant buzz. But they move the “team” – downtown Jax, in this instance – further toward the final goal, which is bringing people downtown and getting them to stay there.
Lot J, on the other hand, was planned for the outskirts of downtown, separated from the core of downtown by a stretch that includes an industrial site, the county jail, an abandoned metal shell of a building, and an empty lot, and wasn’t substantially different from similar Live! District developments by Cordish in other markets. It was a cookie-cutter deal, negotiated incompetently by the Mayor’s office, with the goal of making downtown Jax active again without having to do any of the hard work involved in creating smaller, more incremental progress.
Hail Mary plays are exciting and electrifying when they work, but it’s the “when they work” part that’s the key problem. In the NFL, Hail Mary plays work less than 10% of the time. In urban development, targeting the glitzy-but-impractical proposal and throwing money at it indiscriminately tends to work out in a similar way.
That’s not to say the big plays can’t happen. The Laura Street Trio project, when completed, would certainly qualify as one. What’s important is that these big plays don’t begin to form the basis for the city’s downtown revitalization strategy. The goals remain the same: get to 10,000 residents, increase density, create destinations, and activate the riverfront. Lot J may have inched us closer to one or two of those goals, but it wouldn’t have gotten us in the end-zone by itself.
It may be in the Jags’ best interest for the city to pull off a Hail Mary, especially one right next to TIAA Bank Field, but it’s in the city’s best interest to stay the course on revitalizing the downtown area.