The latest efforts to revitalize downtown Jacksonville are far from the first attempt at doing so.
In fact, there were two massive urban revitalization projects undertaken by the city within a decade of each other. The latter project, dubbed the Better Jacksonville Plan, is one we’ve already delved into the past.
Today, we look at the predecessor to the Better Jacksonville Plan: the River City Renaissance plan.
The plan was born when state attorney Ed Austin defeated Tommy Hazouri to win the title of Jacksonville’s mayor in 1991. Austin began working on a plan to revitalize the city’s urban core, which had been in decline for years. Tasked with hammering out the details of this plan was chief administrator Lex Hester.
Hester had been a widely-respected figure during the city’s consolidation with Duval County in the ‘60s, and served as executive director of the commission tasked with eliminating the widespread corruption among city officials at the time. He left Jax for Broward County shortly after, but returned when Austin took office after being offered a significant raise.
Upon his return, Hester faced one of the biggest challenges of any city official up to that point: coming up with a feasible, affordable way to revive an urban core that had been on the decline since before he left town.
What he ended up coming up with by 1993 was a $235 million plan to revamp downtown’s historic neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, things never really turned out as planned.
An early stage of the project involved demolishing a large collection of older buildings to make room for future development. Many historic buildings, mostly concentrated in LaVilla and Brooklyn, were torn down during this stage. This included, among others, an old military jail and the infamous Ward Street bordellos.
Much of the once-prominent Ashley Street in LaVilla, once referred to as the Harlem of the South, was completely destroyed.
Once the dust cleared, the urban core was left with a collection of empty lots, with nothing but the occasional pieces of concrete and brick there to signify their previous use.
The plan was to fill these newly empty spaces with new private developments, but the development never happened. The anticipated hype for the revival of LaVilla and Brooklyn was never quite achieved. Significant new development wouldn’t come to Brooklyn for several more years – and for LaVilla, the wait continues as remaining properties continue to decline.
The ultimately fruitless destruction of historic structures wasn’t the Renaissance plan’s only shortcoming. A new convention center was promised, with plans for it to be located along the same stretch as the Landing and the newly-remodeled Times-Union Center for Performing Arts. These plans fell through, and haven’t been revisited since.
The plan also came with such a giant price tag that many residents expected much more – and many also complained about pumping all that money into such a limited part of the city.
Granted, there were positive developments that came from the River City Renaissance plan. As mentioned before, the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts was completely reworked to address complaints from visiting artists. The St. James building next to Hemming Park was bought by the city and renovated into a grand new city hall. The Sulzbacher Center, Jax’s primary homeless facility, was also constructed as a result of the plan – although the decision to place it downtown has arguably contributed to the homelessness problem in the urban core.
And while the price tag for the plan was high, it didn’t suffer from the same budgetary nightmares that its successor did.
So while there were positives to emerge from the plan, it’s difficult to overlook the negatives. Specifically, it’s frustrating to imagine what this current generation of developers and residents could have done with some of the historic properties that no longer exist. It’s equally frustrating to watch those properties rot away as empty lots, grass fields, and concrete remnants.
As we continue to embark on the path to a new generation of downtown revitalization, the River City Renaissance plan offers a cautionary tale of what can go wrong with such plans even with the best of intentions.