PerspectivesSherry Magill Jacksonville Today Contributor
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Riverfront Plaza, as seen from the top of the VyStar Credit Union headquarters on May 2, 2024. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | Riverfront Plaza’s false choice

Published on May 9, 2024 at 8:00 pm

Downtown Investment Authority board members will make a critical decision during their May 15 meeting about commercial development on the former Landing site’s northeast corner, roughly an acre of land located where the Main Street bridge car and pedestrian ramp stood until recently.

To build or not to build on “Development Pad B” is not the question. No. The question is: build now or build later? That is, build or build.

Friends, this is a Hobson’s Choice, defined by Wikipedia as “a free choice in which only one thing is actually offered.” Hobson’s is “an illusion,” one that attempts to convince “that multiple choices are available.”

Multiple choices? No. Multiple hurdles? Yes

According to DIA, multiple choices are not available, but hurdles abound.

DIA staff argues that city council already chose, dictating that the property must be commercially developed. Mid- to high-rise commercial development, either residential or hotel or maybe a combination, must be built. DIA cannot choose to not build a commercial property. Already decided.

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When it comes to executing city council’s commercial development dictate, however, pesky hurdles keep raising their little heads, complicating decisions DIA’s board must make to guarantee timely completion of Riverfront Park Plaza in toto. We’re talking final completion of the entire 7+ acre parcel, which includes Park East and Park West (in DIA parlance, “Phase I” and “Phase II” park development), plus Pad B commercial development.

Two parks and a hotel?

Park West construction, including a cafe with children’s playground atop, a controversial “water’s edge restaurant,” and a green lawn and vegetation of some sort, is underway.

Park East is a nightmare.

Although fully designed to include civic stairs, a beer garden, and a new bike/pedestrian ramp to the Main Street Bridge, Park East is unfunded and held hostage to DIA’s obligation to build the imagined mid- to high rise, itself held hostage to unforgiving interest rates, construction costs, and the need to move an inconvenient electrical duct and sewer line.

Why?

Because, as originally designed, Park East and Pad B are interdependent entities, and ideally should be constructed if not simultaneously at least as contemporaneously as possible. To be specific, a Pad B garage wall functions as the beer garden’s back wall as well as the bike/pedestrian ramp’s structural support.

No commercial development, no Park East.

Oops.

By its own admission, if DIA doesn’t get the timing right on successfully “disposing” of Development Pad B, the 7+ acre eastern half will remain in some state of construction for years. Since it’s already been years, we’re talking YEARS.

Lordy.

All In the timing

When it comes to Park East with Pad B, the devil really is in the details and, like a good joke, the timing is everything.

The April 11 Retail Enhancement and Property Disposition Committee meeting discussion reveals the depth of DIA’s conundrum. Presented with two questions—“is the timing right to put out a new notice of disposition,” and if so, with what “requirements”—committee members leaned toward waiting to market Pad B, while some argued previous requirements that yielded the American Lions 44 story, “narrow, tall, iconic building structure” should be retained in any future marketing.

Reaching no consensus, the committee agreed the full board should make a decision at its May 15th meeting.

And Park East?

Constructing Park East, specifically the beer garden and bike/pedestrian ramp, we learn, could commence without Pad B development, but—there’s always a complication with the former Landing site—doing so would require constructing a back wall to the beer garden and independent columns as ramp structural supports.

As DIA’s chairman suggested, the logjam must end. No one bears responsibility for unforgiving interest rates and construction costs, but Park East must be freed from Pad B. Proceed, he suggested, with building Parks West and East, construct the ramp, create temporary activities on Pad B, all of which, he said, would allow the “community . . . to show us and tell us . . . if temporary uses are successful . . . . There could be some benefit . . . to seeing what the public wants there.”

Wishing and hoping

Let’s face it. Development Pad B is a headache for everyone. Wish we could just wish it away.

As one board member said, maybe our vision for this acre once made sense, but given current realities—interest rates, construction costs, electrical duct and sewer line, a return on taxpayer investment (ROI) that doesn’t pencil out—maybe not now.

Maybe not ever. Maybe we should simply bow out, maybe permanently. Be happy if you can with a publicly-subsidized football stadium, Four Seasons Hotel, and the Related Group’s high-end high-rise on the St. Johns Southbank.

When it comes to the smallish 7+ acre former Landing site, maybe throw the people a little crumb: a park with some amenities.

We’re wishing and hoping somehow someway interest rates will go down and not up, that construction costs will do what, get cheaper? You know what they say, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Don’t be square

DIA meets at 2 pm, Wednesday, May 15, in historic downtown’s main library.

If you enjoy listening to folks wrestle out loud with a choice that’s not a choice, who are looking for a way out of a nightmarish conundrum, be there. Maybe you can help them accept the obvious and think differently about Pad B, and encourage them to ask city council to free the park from this insanity.

Simpler. Fewer moving parts. Less reliance on outside forces DIA cannot control.

Seriously, it would have been simpler, cheaper, and quicker to build a park.


Sources:


This column appears in partnership with the JaxLookout.


author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Sherry Magill founded the JaxLookout in 2018 to reflect on local issues and encourage local citizens to engage as she was retiring from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund presidency, ending a 27-year career in private philanthropy. During her tenure, Magill spearheaded the development of the defunct Haydon Burns Library into the Jessie Ball duPont Center, a nationally recognized nonprofit and philanthropic center. Sherry currently chairs the Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Jacksonville (LISC) advisory committee and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation board and serves as member of the board of directors of Virginia-based Locus Bank.
author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Sherry Magill founded the JaxLookout in 2018 to reflect on local issues and encourage local citizens to engage as she was retiring from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund presidency, ending a 27-year career in private philanthropy. During her tenure, Magill spearheaded the development of the defunct Haydon Burns Library into the Jessie Ball duPont Center, a nationally recognized nonprofit and philanthropic center. Sherry currently chairs the Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Jacksonville (LISC) advisory committee and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation board and serves as member of the board of directors of Virginia-based Locus Bank.

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