If you travel down Broad Street in Downtown Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood today, you won’t pass by much that’s open. In fact, despite having traffic counts that make it a prime candidate for a targeted retail revitalization approach and its being one of a few Downtown streets that see traffic seven days a week, there are more empty lots than standing buildings. There was a time, however, when Broad was one of Downtown’s busiest retail corridors, lined with furniture stores, restaurants, delis and shops. A Florida Times-Union brief from September 13, 1980, offers a glimpse of how decisions made at that time have negatively affected Broad St. ever since.
Historically, Broad was a two-way street with a turn lane. In 1980, the city of Jacksonville converted Broad and Jefferson Streets into one-way thoroughfares, serving traffic going north and south, respectively. The intention was to reduce traffic backups at rush hour caused by southbound cars needing to make left turns. “One left-hand turn lane hangs up everything,” said Henry Mock, a traffic engineer assigned to the project.
The project revealed how the city’s priorities for Downtown streets had changed since the mid-20th Century. Earlier, streets were designed with pedestrians in mind. Public policy encouraged dense, pedestrian-centered development and the clustering of complementing uses so that people could access employers, shops, and amenities in close proximity. As a major commercial destination, Broad Street was lined with retail.
After World War II, policy in Jacksonville and most other American cities shifted to focus street design primarily on automobile travel. By the 1970s, Jacksonville’s Urban Core was in a period of precipitous population decline as residents picked up stakes for the suburbs, and streets were built or rebuilt with the goal of moving cars around. In the case of Broad and Jefferson streets, retail on these formerly dense streets became an afterthought.
Although Downtown was declining, in 1980 it still had a level of activity and built density that would be considered vibrant by Jaxsons today. A number of retailers still plied their trade on Broad Street, and as the Times-Union article attested, they were quite skeptical of the city’s changes to their street. They questioned the need for the project and expressed fear that it would hurt their businesses. “It is terrible,” said Morris Worman, owner of Worman’s Bakery and Delicatessen at the corner of Broad and Adams streets. “I do not see where this is going to help anything. I leave my store everyday at 5 o’clock and almost always in 10 minutes I am over the Acosta Bridge.”
William Wall Jr., owner of Pierce-Wall Furniture Co. at 122 Bay St., expressed similar concerns. “Personally I feel it more helpful to business to have traffic both ways, so people can get to us. But it is hard to tell until it is done. All you can do is conjecture. As long as they do not take away parking.”
Henry Mock, a traffic engineer assigned to the project, told the Times-Union there were no plans to take away parallel parking on the street at the time. He said that parking would even be added in some stretches where it previously had been prohibited during rush hour. Morris Worman, however, predicted that street parking would soon be on the chopping block. “They will take away parking next,” he said. “They take away one finger at a time.” Worman’s finger chopping prediction became reality when the Jacksonville Transportation Authority later replaced all on-street parking on both Broad and Jefferson Streets in favor of seldom-used dedicated bus lanes.
For his part, Henry Mock said the changes wouldn’t hurt the struggling retailers.
“Within 30 days, I think the merchants will think we have done them a favor,” he said.
Unfortunately, time has proven the retailers right. Broad Street has only continued to decline. Businesses shuttered and never reopened, and many buildings were demolished, adding to the city’s vast collection of empty lots. Forty-two years later, there’s no parallel parking and no merchants either.
Broad Street’s history shows that heavy traffic is not a problem for Downtown’s retail environment. The problem arises when we design our roads to prioritize car movement to the exclusion of everything else.