It is amusing how many local politicians seek office by pledging to address downtown development, as if it was something they just discovered.
Nearly 50 years ago, the leading business and civic notables in Jacksonville met in a conference at Amelia Island and published a list of the top 10 priorities for the city government to address.
No. 1 was downtown development.
It wasn’t even a new issue then. I knew Haydon Burns, who was elected mayor in 1949. In subsequent election campaigns he always highlighted “The Jacksonville Story,” a film about how his administration had cleaned up the city’s waterfront and brought new businesses to the city in the 1950s.
After the 1974 conference every mayor focused on downtown development. Several, such as Ed Austin and John Delaney, championed large bond issues and used the proceeds for civic improvement, much of it downtown.
Thus, since World War II, downtown development has been at the forefront of the public agenda. Downtown today does not even resemble the downtown of the 1950s.
Meanwhile, technology and evolving culture have brought about much change.
When I was a child, my father would load up the family in the evening and drive downtown from our Avondale home. We would eat at the restaurant in the Seminole Hotel and then go to a movie at the Florida Theater.
People rarely do that anymore. Downtown business has moved to the suburbs, where the people are, and restaurants and entertainment followed.
City leaders are not all fools. They have realized that downtown development will only progress to a point without people.
Efforts to entice more residential housing are progressing. After current projects are completed, more than 10,000 people will live downtown. More restaurants and entertainment venues are bound to follow.
The 2022 Downtown Master Plan reveals the current vision. Ideas of the past are being revised and, in some cases, discarded.
One-way streets were employed to speed through traffic. Now, except for key arteries, streets are being made two-way and traffic is being slowed.
A few years ago, it was trendy to put shops and restaurants in office buildings. Now planners think this keeps office workers in the buildings, instead of encouraging them to go outside and stroll around the city visiting shops and restaurants.
The stilly idea that came with the Skyway Express – that people would drive to the edge of downtown, park and ride the skyway a half-mile into the business district – is being dumped. Instead, the buses will come down from the Skyway to the ground and go get people.
Part of the push to mass transit was to make it more difficult to use cars. Now new technology such as phone apps, and large parking garages and lots invite auto traffic.
Discrete districts such as Brooklyn, LaVilla and Cathedral, are being groomed for different purposes and features. Instead of government offices, the riverfront downtown now has attractive condos, apartments and parks with public access.
So, previous “master plans” have had provisions that proved unworkable, such as the 1990s vision for LaVilla, which has since been abandoned. Today the area is seen as home to a park, transportation hub and perhaps townhouses. Progress, however, is slow.
That is one reason all master plans should be considered plans – not gospel.
The current master plan for downtown seems to realize a simple truth – government’s role is to facilitate development driven by the private sector, not to drive it.
Free enterprise has been busy for some 75 years making the downtown area a new, brighter, more functional place with government sometimes helping and sometimes hindering.