The Jacksonville Downtown Investment Authority voted unanimously Wednesday to approve environmental exploration on land next to Metropolitan park by Jaguars owner Shad Khan’s development company, Iguana Investments.
The decision faced opposition from a coalition of groups that banded together to form Riverfront Parks Now. Fifty-one people also emailed or left voice messages for the DIA, asking them to turn down the resolution.
“We need more parks along our waterways, not less,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth Wednesday on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross. The Riverkeeper is a member of the Riverfront Parks Now coalition. “And we think it's critical that the parks are not opened up and are not vulnerable to development in the future. Because when we establish parks, we typically establish those in perpetuity to benefit generations to come,” Orth said.
Khan wants to build a Four Seasons hotel near TIAA Bank Field. The measure approved Wednesday does not pave the way for any development to begin. Instead, it approves environmental exploration of the land to take place to help determine what the cost of the project would be.
The owner of the Jaguars has long been interested in developing areas of the Downtown riverfront near the stadium where his team plays, including the recent ill-fated push to develop Lot J. The latest push would develop a parcel of land that was formerly the Kids Kampus.
DIA CEO Denise Boyer said in Wednesday’s meeting that allowing Iguana Investments to do the exploration comes at no cost to the city, and the information the survey produced would be helpful no matter what is ultimately decided concerning the land’s future.
Khan originally proposed building the hotel at Metropolitan Park but when that failed due to a city agreement with the National Park Service, the Jaguars issued a statement to WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union, saying such a development could also be built nearby in the area generally referred to as the Shipyards.
Scenic Jacksonville Executive Director Nancy Powell, who also appeared on Wednesday’s First Coast Connect, said Riverfront Parks Now is not against the idea of a Downtown Four Seasons.
“We don't want to tell the Four Seasons where they should develop, okay, if that's the plan. It's just that, like Jimmy said, public parks are for the public. And so we think that, you know, there are alternatives for that kind of development. In fact, the most vibrant development that's happening Downtown right now is in the core where historic preservation efforts are happening,” Powell said.
Scenic Jacksonville is a member of Riverfront Parks Now, along with the Sierra Club, Greenscape, the Garden Club of Jacksonville and a host of other organizations.
Riverfront Parks Now sees the open riverfront land Downtown as a “once in a lifetime opportunity;” with the sites of the former Jacksonville Landing, old county courthouse and Shipyards riverfront areas all publicly owned and ready to be enhanced.
Orth says Jacksonville is in a great position because it has so much available riverfront land in the urban core. Riverfront Parks Now wants to see that land stay in public hands.
“We really don't need to look to our public parks, to build future development. We have available land elsewhere that we can look to. And we can also have this vision that we're talking about with extensive public green space along our waterfront - and adjacent development - because that's one of the good things Jacksonville has right now. We have a blank slate of a lot of available properties where we can have both a green waterfront that is publicly accessible and we can have the development that fills in behind,” Orth said.
Powell said another benefit of a vibrant Downtown riverfront park system would be helping protect the urban core from sea level rise.
“We see this as a complimentary vision, and that the parks and green spaces are critical, especially like in this time of COVID and health and wellness and social equity, to have really our Downtown riverfront be accessible for all,” said Powell.
A host of public-private developments have been proposed along the Downtown Northbank riverfront, including moving the Museum of Science and History to the Shipyards, and turning the old city hall annex and county courthouse into a mixed-used project currently referred to as The Ford on Bay.
The DIA is also accepting first-phase bids on a public park design competition for the former Jacksonville Landing site. Those are due March 3.