As the future of The Jacksonville Landing is debated, Hans Strauch has a unique perspective.
Strauch was the project architect for Jacksonville’s downtown marketplace, developing the Landing’s original design, starting with sketches and working through the project until it was completed in 1987. He’s followed the Landing with interest since handing it off after its completion. Today, Strauch is the founder and president of HDS Architecture in Boston.
His original Landing design called for more open space. Strauch said he also had a scheme that would have allowed people on Laura Street to see the river from just north of the Landing.
“The client said at the time, 'No, don't do it, because people in Jacksonville don't like to be outside, they like to be in air conditioning.' So the whole thing has to be air conditioned, and you don't open up the building through. So that's had a lot to do with how that sort of closure occurred,” said Strauch.
Strauch said he read a WJCT News story with information from The Jaxson about a group of local architects who are proposing to open up the Landing. Former Landing owner Toney Sleiman also proposed opening up the Landing so the St. Johns River could be seen from Laura Street shortly after he bought it.
Strauch provided WJCT News with a photo of the original scale model and rendering of the Landing that illustrates more landscaping than was ultimately incorporated and an open, airy feeling that didn’t make it into the final design.
Another big piece of the original plan that was designed but not built was a parking garage.
“My understanding was at the time – and rightfully so – that in order for the property to succeed, it needed to have a place for visitors to come and park, and it’s a necessary requirement for any shopping enterprise to have parking associated with it,” he said.
The lack of a connected parking garage has been a sore point throughout the Landing’s history and ultimately resulted in a lawsuit being filed against the city by Sleiman Enterprises, Sleiman's company.
WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union reported that in 1987 the city promised to build an 800-space parking lot for the Rouse Co., which was the Landing’s original developer.
Mathias J. Devito, who was Rouse’s CEO and chairman, said in 1987, “Parking probably will be an issue.” He added that during the Landing’s opening and early operation, when there are large crowds, a city shuttle bus system should help alleviate some of the parking congestion.
As Strauch looks back at what he believes went wrong with the Landing, another issue was branding to help continually build buzz.
“Two years ago or three years ago, when I made a call on this down there [to Jacksonville] - I forget who I spoke with - I suggested you got to bring in some branding assistance here,” said Strauch.
Sleiman made various attempts over the years to redevelop the Landing and generate excitement, but he was unsuccessful in securing incentives from city leaders.
Strauch noted the apparent lack of a strong ongoing public-private partnership after the initial launch as another issue: “Well, I'll tell you, politics and people can kill a lot of things and it can kill relationships between countries.”
The veteran architectural developer has fond memories of his Landing experience as he traveled back and forth for more than two years to work on the project.
“It was a terrific experience, getting involved in looking at the various alternative approaches to the design of the property,” Strauch said.
As to the Landing’s future, Strauch said it would be a mistake to demolish the Landing without a rock solid redevelopment plan in place.
“Who in their right mind would spend $15 million to demolish something and have no economic recovery in place?” he asked.
The city is spending $15 million to buy back the Landing, with an additional $1.5 million allocated to demolish it and another $1.5 million to relocate the facility’s remaining tenants.
As for the Landing’s future, Strauch believes the community needs to take a hard look at what it wants and needs before bringing in any bulldozers.
“I think people have to stop thinking about the physical redesign or the physical adaptations. They have to think about what really would work in downtown,” said Strauch.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration has previously implied demolition followed by a park is a likely scenario for the Landing. But Curry’s chief of staff did leave the door slightly open to other possibilities.
Brian Hughes, who is also the Downtown Investment Authority interim CEO, said last month the Landing could be razed in four-to-six months. He told WJCT News partner the Jacksonville Daily Record, “That’s plenty of time for the administration, council, DIA and community stakeholders to really have a discussion about what to do next.”
Incoming At Large Group 4 Jacksonville City Councilman Matt Carlucci wants to make sure that discussion happens.
He’s calling for a charrette, an intense period of design or planning activity.
“The Downtown [Investment] Authority would be the authority that would put something like this together,” Carlucci said Thursday on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.
Carlucci said it doesn’t have to take a long time, adding, “It just gives people a chance to buy in.”
In Strauch's view, “It's not about the physical building that's going to make this work. It's about the place. The people. The activities."
If it is ultimately demolished, he said he just might make the trip back to witness its death, just as he witnessed its birth.