With All Due Respect: Jacksonville Landing Should Reflect Community's Vitality, Spirit

Jan 7, 2015

What does the worst urban fire in the history of the southeastern U.S. have in common with The Jacksonville Landing? In a word: opportunity. WJCT's occasional commentator Jay Solomon explains in this edition of "With All Due Respect."

Within two weeks of the great fire that gutted 146 blocks of Downtown Jacksonville in 1901, reconstruction was underway. Architects, drawn by the blank canvas the smoldering ashes represented, came to town and created the future.

Leading the charge was Henry John Klutho, a proponent of the prairie style emerging from the Midwest. Bold new structures demanded attention. Many notable examples of Klutho’s buildings still exist, including City Hall, the Morocco Temple and the Klutho Apartments in Springfield.

Fast forward 113 years. I'm not suggesting Jacksonville's downtown resembles the devastation after the fire — just the opposite, really. What we have is a city on the cusp of remarkable change because of all the great projects moving forward.

Consider: Hemming Plaza improvements, the redevelopment of the Hayden Burns Library and the opening of the Sweet Pete's complex in the re-purposed Seminole Club building. There are new restaurants, pubs and clubs. The Laura Street Trio, built following the fire and including the Klutho-designed Bisbee building, are coming back to life. Plans are in the works for the long-dormant Ship Yards property on the North Bank and the former JEA power station site on the south bank. And core urban neighborhoods are exploding with activity. There's incredible potential — and — one big question mark: the centerpiece on the river, the under-utilized, often-maligned Jacksonville Landing.

Nearly a year ago the City and developer Toney Sleiman were talking about complete demolition and new construction. However, designs unveiled in late summer were attacked as uninspiring for this unique location and planning halted abruptly. But... as the year ended, a new approach was emerging. A design firm with experience in urban riverfront design is to be selected to work on concepts for the property.

After years of struggles that's great news. It's akin to the burned-out heart of the city after the 1901 fire: a tremendous opportunity to create new and compelling icons for the heart of the First Coast.

Remember when the current Hyatt Regency Riverfront opened as the Adams Mark in 2001? Disappointment reigned. Architecturally it had all the charisma of a 20-year-old warehouse — a missed opportunity. We must not miss with this one. Imagine the possibilities.

Actually, I'm raising my hand because I have an idea to consider from another urban waterfront, Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Located where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans meet, Iceland is a big volcanic island about the size of Pennsylvania with a small population... roughly 320 thousand people — about half a million fewer than the city of Jacksonville.

Icelanders had desired an opera house for more than a hundred years before construction finally got underway on the Reykjavik waterfront in 2007. In a country beset by daily volcanic activity and earthquakes the facility, known as Harpa, was clad in exterior walls of glass. But it was a financial earthquake — the economic collapse in 2008 — that broke the project.

There was talk of abandoning Harpa but the national and local governments took over the financial load in 2009 and construction finished in 2010. The Observer of London called Harpa "A wonderfully brazen emblem of Iceland's refusal to sacrifice culture in the face of crisis."

It is an incredible, signature building which soars like a wave while reflecting the sea and sky in its oddly shaped and multi-colored glass facets. As the light changes, Harpa changes. Sometimes we see the interior, sometimes it projects reflections of Reykjavik. At night it wraps itself in a cape of lights.

Iceland is a country of astounding beauty accented by almost continuous variations in light and weather. Harpa embodies all of that. Visitors see an iconic building but as they look at it and through it... they see... Iceland.

Why would a larger, richer, blossoming city like Jacksonville want, or accept, anything less?

I'm not saying copy Harpa... But certainly what we see when we look down Main Street to the St. Johns, should reflect our community's vitality and spirit.

With all due respect, I'm Jay Solomon.

Veteran broadcaster Jay Solomon's "With All Due Respect" commentaries can be heard occasionally on First Coast Connect.