One of the most important steps when trying to revive a depleted downtown district is improving density – or, in other words, making sure that every parcel of land is being used efficiently to maximize the number of people and businesses that are routinely present downtown.
And perhaps the biggest enemy of urban density is a land use that is all too common in downtown Jacksonville: surface parking lots.
In recent years, surface parking lots have come under fire as the most inefficient use possible for a piece of property located in the urban core. More so than any other development, they limit their property to just one potential use: parking cars and leaving them there for a period of time. They encourage more vehicular traffic, which runs antithetical to the transit-oriented priorities of a successful downtown area. They provide no cultural, entertainment, historical, or meaningful infrastructural value. And there’s nothing to indicate that providing more surface lots does anything to encourage more people or more businesses to come downtown – in fact, the opposite is true, given that the lot takes up property that could be used for residential or commercial development.
There are well over three dozen surface parking lots of various sizes in downtown Jax – not including the various parking lots surrounding TIAA Bank Field, which would add roughly another dozen to the tally. The city has long been noted as among the nation’s worst offenders for urban core surface lots.
These parking lots – particularly city-owned lots – could easily be marketed for the type of transit-oriented redevelopment that would reduce the need for parking downtown. And any such development could include its own parking structure that would provide just as many – if not significantly more – available spaces, as is the case with many recent urban core developments such as 220 Riverside in Brooklyn or Vestcor’s Lofts complexes.
Some cities have opted to start replacing their surface lots with standalone parking garages – still a limited-use scenario, but much more efficient and capable of accommodating far more vehicles than a surface lot. In that scenario, the potential at least exists for street-level activation in the form of small retail units. But, contrary to long-standing local perception, there’s already plenty of parking available in downtown Jacksonville as long as you know where to look. The city could afford to, in theory, lose several of these surface lots to a development free of parking spaces and still would have a parking surplus.
It would seem that the city agrees with the notion that surface parking doesn’t belong downtown. Years ago, the city updated its downtown zoning code to clarify that new standalone surface parking lots can only be created with special permission from Downtown Investment Authority.
Unfortunately, those rules haven’t necessarily stopped developers from doing what they want anyway. A few years ago, a developer from Miami purchased the former Greyhound Bus Station on Pearl Street, demolished it, then paved the lot and set up an unpermitted parking lot. When Downtown Investment Authority informed the developer of the code violation, they responded with a pie-in-the-sky proposal for a 54-story tower at the site; the code violation issue has since seemingly been dropped, though no progress has been made at the site.
The zoning updates also did little to address the problem of pre-existing surface lots.
So how does the city encourage developers to spend more money to make their properties more useful to the district’s goals?
One possible way forward would be an incentives program – similar to the one the city has for adaptive reuse projects – that prioritizes funding for developers that replace existing surface parking lots with transit-oriented development projects. If the city is able to offset some of the construction costs, a developer may be more willing to invest.
There are certainly plenty of developers that would find that prospect appealing. While a surface lot can be immensely profitable for a property owner, it can’t come close to the money that could come from building – and then flipping – a successful urban core project.
Of course, surface lots aren’t the only obstacle to downtown density. There are plenty of parcels of land that are simply sitting empty as grass fields – the preferred option to surface lots, from a zoning perspective, but still equally unhelpful in creating density. Equally problematic are the numerous empty buildings that also sit idly, waiting for their potential to be unlocked.
Nonetheless, finding a way to trim down on the number of surface parking lots within the urban core could be a nice first step to creating a denser downtown Jax.