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The Jaxson: Is A Dog Park The Right Move For Downtown?

The Jaxson
A 2018 photo at the Main Street Pocket Park

Is public input really being considered as downtown Jacksonville is developed? The following is a commentary from WJCT News partner The Jaxson:

As the Main Street Pocket Park is poised to become a dog park, we have to ask: is simply repeating the mistakes of the past really a wise use of taxpayer money?

As first reported by WJCT News partner the Jacksonville Daily Record, the city of Jacksonville is moving forward with plans to convert the Main Street Pocket Park into a fenced-in dog park at a cost of $400,000. Preliminary design plans call for the installation of 20,000 square feet of synthetic turf, aluminum fencing and gates, pavers, irrigation, a drinking fountain and various pieces of play equipment for dogs.

While residential buildings within Downtown’s Northbank are operating near full occupancy, the Northbank’s residential population is still quite small when compared to nearby in-town neighborhoods like Riverside and Springfield.

This is important to note as both neighborhoods already feature new and well-maintained dog parks, with Springfield’s dog park being located only six blocks from the Main Street Pocket Park.

It would appear then that the City’s willingness to spend nearly half a million dollars on the dog park conversion has more to do with chasing out the homeless population and less to do with allocating taxpayer money in the most efficient way.

The Main Street Pocket Park is less than a 10-minute walk away from the dog park in Springfield’s Confederate Park. In 2008, a portion of Confederate Playground was converted into a dog park for the pets of urban core residents. In 2016, the playground equipment received a substantial upgrade.

Riverside’s John Gorrie Dog Park opened in 2016 within Riverside Park. That dog park’s construction was partially funded by private donations, and a group of volunteers maintain and fundraise for the park’s continued upkeep.

The ill-fated Main Street Pocket Park, located adjacent to the Salvation Army and a one-block walk to the Saint Francis Soup Kitchen, was until quite recently mainly populated with underemployed, transient and homeless individuals. Motorists passing by along busy Main Street encountered several scenes of vagrancy stretching along a five-block area starting from the Shell gas station on the corner of Union and Main Streets up to the Main Street Pocket Park.

What was once a vibrant street filled with diverse urban architecture and a mix of uses has been converted into a one-way “freeway” with stoplights surrounded by surface parking lots and parking garages.

The city’s latest effort to convert the Main Street Pocket Park into a dog park doubles down on previous short-sighted decisions more than a decade earlier. The existence of the park was the result of a $1.8 million Main Street Hardscaping and Beautification plan put forth under former Mayor John Peyton. The park, completed in July 2007 at a cost of $700,000,replaced a surface parking lot with a series of grass terraces lined with shade oak trees, lighting and a courtyard. The pocket park’s creation was touted as a cost-effective way to create downtown greenspace, falsely proclaiming that its proximity to the Main Library would make it a popular place for library users and residents looking for greenspace in a sea of concrete.

In 2005, downtown advocates raised concerns to the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission (the pre-cursor to the Downtown Investment Authority) that the park’s design would unnecessarily waste public money and create an isolated island of green space that would do nothing but attract vagrants.

Seemingly not having learned from the mistakes of the past, the city once again ignored alternatives brought forward from downtown advocates, opting instead to spend additional money on a use that will struggle to attract desired results.

In 2016 Councilman Bill Gulliford, in response to minimal skateboard damage on a portion of City Hall, introduced legislation that would have banned skateboarding in areas downtown including sidewalks, walkways, benches and guardrails. The potential to ban skateboarding downtown prompted the skateboarding community to descend on City Hall, which resulted in a series of public meetings and a proposal put forth for citizen volunteers to develop and maintain vacant city lots as mini skate parks. The Main Street Pocket Park served as ground zero for that discussion. These talks advanced so far that Councilman Gulliford withdrew his legislation in 2017.

Business owners and real estate professionals had sought to convert the Main Street Pocket Park into a “DIY” skate park with modern art pieces and skate-friendly infrastructure. Not only would this use have a built-in audience to provide consistent programming in the park, the activity and new park features would help eliminate less desirable behavior within the park.

Martin Ramos, owner of Kona Skatepark, told WJCT News that Main Street Pocket Park would “be a skate park that doesn’t look like a skate park because it’s taking an approach that just emulates obstacles and things you would see in a natural downtown environment, but just optimizing them for skateboarding.”

Yet those efforts, along with a plan by the city’s Parks Department to build a skate park on top of old tennis courts at Florida Dwight Memorial Park near the LaVilla School of the Arts, were halted in favor of a plan to erect a fence around Main Street Pocket Park to be used as a dog park.

Decisions should not be made in a vacuum. Over the last three decades, the City has directed more than enough public money to effectively revitalize downtown. Yet, the disjointed and haphazard decisions on how those dollars have been allocated reveal why the volume of public funds spent have not resulted in the desired level of vibrancy.

The story of the Main Street Pocket Park illustrates the importance of planning and implementing a vision over an extended period of time, while simultaneously highlighting why downtown struggles with pockmarks of blighted conditions because of poor designs, a reluctance to cluster complementary uses in a compact setting, and short-sighted decisions for the sake of political wins.

A version of this story first appeared on The Jaxson.