How to fix downtown Jacksonville Transit System?

downtown jax trafficSeven experts from across the country spent a week in Jacksonville – riding the Skyway, walking downtown and meeting with more than 60 stakeholders – to recommend ways to use transportation planning to revitalize downtown.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority invited the experts from the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit focused on land use and economic development, to review the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C), JTA’s plan to transform and extend the Skyway as a network for autonomous vehicles.

The group made a number of preliminary recommendations – bring a train station back downtown, develop on downtown surface parking lots and make downtown accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians – ahead of a complete report the group will finalize in the next few months.

Jacksonville poses a number of challenges for transportation planners, chief among them the size of the sprawling city.

“The phrase ‘845 square miles’ is permanently etched in my brain now,” said Clay Holk, an expert in affordable housing policy.

Population density is another challenge. Downtown has 12 percent of the region’s jobs but less than 1 percent of its residents, making it hard for downtown to sustain retailers and other businesses. Furthermore, downtown is not homogenous, but rather a collection of weakly connected, distinctive neighborhoods, the group found.

However, the group was impressed with the opportunities for development in Jacksonville. The city has a wealth of strong assets, including the riverfront, TIAA Bank Field, medical facilities, university sites and more that invite visitors and supply a diversity of jobs. Downtown has a viable street grid, albeit uninviting for pedestrians, and street capacity for wider sidewalks, bike lanes and other multimodal options.

Downtown development is also gaining momentum with high-profile projects like the Shipyards and the District, which the experts agreed would transform downtown.

“But they’re all very complicated and require a lot of time,” said Amitabh Barthakur, who specializes in economic development planning in real estate and transit. “While you’re working on these projects, don’t forget the small things.”

The group presented several “small things” – at least in comparison to the Shipyards – that planners could focus on. It recommended focusing on the core of downtown, Springfield and Mixon Town (west of downtown). These areas already have momentum, have assets ripe for development and/or don’t have advocates in current development plans, the group reasoned.

Neal Payton, an architect and urban designer, honed in on Water Street, Park Street, the Florida State College at Jacksonville campus and Bay Street, which he believed could be used to transform the experience of being downtown.

Payton advised transforming the Landing, which he characterized as an “underperforming shopping center,” into a park and getting better use of the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. He also suggested expanding the FSCJ campus through Confederate Park, connecting the U2C to Park Street near the Cummer Museum instead of Brooklyn and prioritizing residential development around the stadium.

“We have no idea when the Shipyard project will come out of the ground because of environmental issues,” he said. “Focus on making great neighborhoods, not just getting bodies on game days.”

Payton also strongly advised bringing a train station back to downtown, something JTA has prepared space for at the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center.

“Press whoever you have to press to get that to happen,” he said, calling that step a “game changer.”

The experts made few tweaks to the U2C route extensions and unanimously recommended going forward with it. The group suggested looking closely at development around proposed stations, developing mixed-use and residential buildings to build up population densities and make walking or biking preferred options.

The group believed that such transportation-oriented development will better prepare downtown for population growth, relieve roadway congestion, stimulate economic development, make the city more competitive economically and provide environmental and health benefits.

The time is right for development in downtown Jacksonville, the group agreed, noting that downtown is essential for the vitality of the region.

“Downtown makes the rest of Jacksonville great,” said Holk.

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