By Laura Riggs
For more than 20 years, the promise of a vibrant downtown in Jacksonville existed mainly in renderings….
Largely ignored by ineffectual leadership, our urban center evolved into a wasteland of demolished buildings, leaving parking lots in its wake while city planners focused on haphazard suburban sprawl. Thankfully, many visionaries with unstoppable momentum believed Jacksonville to be a place on the river full of entertainment, culture, business, and green space that better reflected its citizens’ true potential. Even as city officials continually created new obstacles, these dreamers pressed on with a motto most often echoed throughout the private sector, “Jacksonville could be so great if ____.”
The tipping point toward progress finally arrived during the pandemic. As remote work became the norm, many people sought to live-work in areas with more sun, sand, and water than they could afford in other parts of the country. Jacksonville has been an enormous beneficiary of this movement. “Today, more money is being invested in infrastructure downtown than ever,” Laura Edgecombe from Build Up Jacksonville explains. After the failure of the Lot J project, Build Up Jacksonville was established as a privately funded nonprofit to be a better advocate for innovative development and placemaking spaces downtown. As Build Up’s director of business development, Edgecombe works closely with the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) and Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI) as a liaison between developers, business operators, and the city.
With over 50 downtown development and redevelopment projects either recently completed, under construction, or pending city approval, five of which are historic renovations, DIA and DVI have been working overtime these past few years to catch Jacksonville up to the national stage. Build Up’s goal is to match operators with building owners to curate amenities for a vibrant downtown while educating citizens outside of the city center on how a thriving urban core is crucial to any healthy local economy. All three organizations work in tandem with various community organizations and key stakeholders to ensure this development brings a balanced mix of residential, commercial, and public green space to Jacksonville’s downtown.
As downtown starts to come alive, DIA has prioritized maintenance and accessibility as part of its development strategy. “What some may consider mundane,” says Lori Boyer, CEO of the DIA, “is essential to creating a vibrant and safe place where residents feel a sense of pride in their community.” DIA is devoting extra resources to creating an ambiance downtown while planning for amenities that make downtown a place where people want to be. “When you look at our plan, DIA has multiple goals—increasing the residential population and backfilling with a base of restaurants, shops, and things, while filling commercial space.”
One would expect those goals from an organization whose mission is to revitalize the city’s epicenter. “There is value in keeping things up to a certain level,” Boyer continues. “Mobility, walkability, bike-ability are all part of my board’s commitments.” Closely aligned with this mission, DVI works alongside DIA to provide services, support, and events that create comfortable settings for people to explore downtown. As more projects were initiated downtown, DVI established the Lively and Beautiful Sidewalks fund in 2017 to address the need to enhance public spaces with the goal of engaging the community.