AIA’s Vision for Downtown Gets Real

A lot has happened since last year’s art and architecture issue of Arbus unveiled the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) visionary plan that was tentatively called “River of Lights.”

The plan calls for a series of “gateway activity nodes” that will connect points of destination along the river and will also lead into distinct sections of Jacksonville. Earlier this year, when City Council President Lori Boyer learned about the plan she immediately jumped on board. With Boyer’s involvement, the vision may soon become a reality, and as she puts it, “I think there are a lot of pieces that could be in place by 2019.”

Tom Duke, AIA, of Thomas Duke Architect, PA, says that the AIA didn’t want to come up with a master plan, but rather a vision: “The main difference is that a vision is flexible and things can plug into it, and it’s not a static, rigid plan. If something changes or shifts, it could call for that.”

AIA’s vision for Downtown, Shipyards and USS Adams, by Yves P. Rathle.

Although the original idea of incorporating lights into the plan is still important, the AIA group says that isn’t the only part of the plan. They also stress that even though they have located logical areas for the first nodes, those areas can change and grow as the city evolves. Each node would have its own identity and could be developed according to where it is located in the city. “Let’s create a reason for people to come to Downtown, and as that starts happening, it could start triggering other growth,” says Duke.

Boyer agrees that the plan need not be static, but that the connectivity factor is key. “The operative word of the whole AIA plan in my mind is nodes, because the essence of it is that our river is wide enough and the current is fast enough that, while it is beautiful, it is quite imposing between the two sides of Downtown and it’s important that we connect them,” says Boyer. She feels that the city should not have to isolate the south and north banks. “What the AIA has articulated is the importance of setting these nodes at regular intervals that are the connection points to whatever is going on, so that ideally you can see across the water and know where you are in the context of Downtown neighborhoods.”

AIA’s vision for Downtown, Shipyards with USS Adams and floating theatre, by Yves P. Rathle.

By understanding where you are in relation to Jacksonville as a whole, you may then be more willing to hop onto a water taxi or walk from one node to another for different experiences. Boyer thinks the nodes will help people realize that Jacksonville has “distinct neighborhoods with their own special qualities that should each be celebrated.” She also proposes that each area of Jacksonville have its own identity. “Just calling everything Downtown is too bland. We need to call each area something different – Brooklyn has started doing that. We could have a sports and entertainment district, an arts and culture district, and wherever you are, there should be a node to place you there.” Chris Flagg, FASLA, of Haskell, who has been involved with the plan since its inception, also feels that it is important that each node should be distinct. “It’s a refined destination that is defining of its surrounds and can ignite all of the senses.”

Another member of the group, Chris Allen, AIA, also of Haskell and this year’s AIA Jacksonville chapter president, likens the nodes to “anchor tenants in a mall.” He says, “Right now I feel like the city is fractured, people see it as a series of singular destinations. They go to see a baseball game and then they leave, it’s not connected.” If the nodes were put into place, he says, “people would begin to see their city as a series of connected neighborhoods. Once you get people moving as pedestrians, they have an opportunity to engage with other people in other events along the river and that can begin to heal the economic and social fabric of the city.”

AIA’s vision for Downtown, floating in a laser show, by Yves P. Rathle.

Allen explains that Boyer recognized the AIA’s plan was important to the future of Downtown development. “She saw our idea as something to help her make sure that good fundamental urban design gets incorporated and you don’t end up with a series of unrelated projects.” There certainly seem to be quite a number of development projects on Jacksonville’s horizon, and Boyer wants to get a plan into place as soon as possible. “For me, the sense of urgency is that there are very dynamic development opportunities on the radar right now – the Shipyard proposal, The District proposal, the Times-Union looking for development of their site. So it’s critical to move ahead now, because if developments proceed without nodes it’s really hard for them to go back and do that when they’ve invested a lot in a new facility or design,” she says. Boyer wants to have conversations with the developers so they “know what the ask is.”

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Written by Eva Dasher

Author: Arbus

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