Reuse and Revitalization in Jacksonville: Discovering the Value of Older Buildings and Blocks

By Margaret O'Neal posted 05-17-2017 09:46


The Preservation Green Lab is always looking for opportunities to test our idea that building reuse should be a key strategy for supporting community health, equity, and resilience. Our ongoing work building the Atlas of ReUrbanism does just that by quantifying the benefits that older buildings and blocks bring to 50 cities (so far) across the country. Not surprisingly, these “high-character” areas feature more jobs; more units of affordable rental housing; more diverse residents; and more density in terms of housing, businesses, and people.


New businesses are opening in small, early-20th-century buildings along older commercial corridors such as Edgewood Avenue, in the Murray Hill neighborhood. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Occasionally, we are invited to do more in-depth research on the specific impacts that older buildings and blocks have on a city—as in the five Partnership for Building Reuse reports as well as last year in Tucson, Arizona. This year we have been able to do similar research in Jacksonville, Florida, thanks to support from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.

Jacksonville may seem like an unlikely place to study preservation and revitalization. After all, for some it still holds the objectionable moniker of America’s most sprawling city. However, the large metropolis—made even larger by a city-county merger in 1968—surrounds a historic downtown, commercial corridors, and neighborhoods. Much of old Jacksonville was rebuilt in the early 20th century following the worst fire in the historic of the southeastern United States, which destroyed more than 140 square blocks in just eight hours. This spirit of rebirth is evident even today, as several large renovations are underway or planned downtown, vacant commercial buildings are being rehabbed along neighborhood commercial corridors, and some of Jacksonville’s oldest homes are being spruced up and sold to families.

The Worth of Old Buildings

In Jacksonville, Preservation Green Lab researchers conducted an analysis similar to the ones featured in our previous reports. We gathered data about the city’s existing buildings and measured correlations between building age and scale and a range of social, economic, and demographic markers. Our goal was to show exactly why old buildings are important to the economic and social well-being of Jacksonville in order to inform the integration of their reuse into plans for revitalizing the city. What we found may provide a new view of Jacksonville for those who still think of it as a sprawling Sun Belt city.

The Bostwick Building in downtown Jacksonville will soon to house a new restaurant, thanks to an adaptive reuse project that is  currently underway. | Credit: Florida Times Union

  • Jacksonville’s historic corridors power the local economy. Character-rich areas of Jacksonville play an outsized role in supporting small businesses, new businesses, and creative industries. There are 27 percent more small business jobs in these areas, as well as significantly higher percentages of jobs in newly launched businesses and in creative industries. In areas where at least half of the buildings were constructed before 1920, 15 percent of the jobs are in creative industries, compared to a citywide average of about 8 percent. 
  • Entrepreneurs of all backgrounds can get their start in old buildings. Across the United States, women and minority entrepreneurs more often open businesses in areas with older, smaller, and mixed-age buildings. In Jacksonville there are 27 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses in high–Character Score areas. 
  • Older areas of Jacksonville provide the right environment for the city’s best restaurants. Sixty-one percent of its most beloved restaurants, as identified by Jacksonville magazine, are in high–Character Score areas. Though only 5 percent of the city’s fabric was built prior to 1920, 20 percent of the top-rated restaurants are in buildings of that vintage. 
  • It’s easier to find shade in Jacksonville’s neighborhoods of older, smaller buildings. Tree canopy is quickly becoming a measure of livability, particularly in southern cities dealing with heat island effect, where the concentration of paved surfaces creates a hotter environment downtown compared to exurban areas. Areas of Jacksonville where half of the buildings were constructed before the end of World War II have an average of about 65 percent tree canopy, providing significantly more shade than newer areas. 
  • Character-rich areas of Jacksonville provide space for community, cultural, and civic engagement. Access to “civic commons” areas—shared, public spaces where community members can gather or spend time—is another increasingly popular indicator of neighborhood health. Nearly 60 percent of Jacksonville’s civic commons are situated in high–Character Score areas, including 76 percent of the city’s libraries, 60 percent of its community centers, and 55 percent of its museums and art galleries. 
  • Different generations of Jacksonville residents live together in the city’s older neighborhoods. The research team found that nearly 90 percent of character-rich areas have a higher Resident Age Diversity Index (RADI) score— a metric developed by the Preservation Green Lab—than the citywide average. 
  • Jacksonville’s blocks of older, smaller, and mixed-age buildings house more residents and offer more housing. As is the case in many other U.S. cities, surprising population and housing density are found in the older neighborhoods of Jacksonville. Nearly 60 percent of urban Jacksonville’s population lives in the half of the city with older, smaller, mixed-age buildings. These areas include 44 percent more housing units than areas with mostly large, new buildings. 

Given all of this, including reuse as a key strategy in revitalizing more places in Jacksonville should be a no-brainer. However, there are significant barriers to reusing Jacksonville’s older buildings and blocks. Policy tweaks to remove those barriers would allow more developers, building owners, entrepreneurs, and homeowners to leverage the benefits of reuse. 

Barriers and Solutions in Jacksonville 

Working closely with more than 30 stakeholders in Jacksonville, the Preservation Green Lab identified barriers that fit into four categories—market, technical, financial, and regulatory—as well as solutions to each. Recommendations emerging from our research include:

Celebration in Hemming Park, downtown Jacksonville. | Credit: Ryan Ketterman, Visit Jacksonville

  • Even the playing field. Many stakeholders noted that weak market conditions and a lack of amenities are holding older neighborhoods back from their full potential. The market in most of the urban core is still emerging, with pockets of considerable strength in neighborhoods like Riverside, San Marco, Springfield, and Brooklyn. Other areas, including downtown, are seeing growing potential as more projects are developing and coming online. Changes to city policies could help even market appeal across various neighborhoods and spur targeted investment. Such changes might include developing smarter parking regulations for historic commercial and mixed-use projects; bringing zoning requirements into the 21st century to encourage infill development and live-work arrangements; and advocating for state-level policies that impact local business, such as lowering the minimum seat requirement necessary to get a liquor license as a small restaurant. 
  • Bring down the costs of rehabilitation. As in most places around the country, certain regulations and incentives make new construction a better short-term financial deal for developers. In Jacksonville these disincentives, combined with the availability of developable land outside the urban core, make a strong case against However, strengthening a few existing incentives and creating a few new ones could turn this trend around. These adjustments might include developing support for the up-front rehab costs for downtown projects, leveraging Department of Housing and Urban Development and other funding to support projects in urban neighborhoods, supporting advocacy efforts for federal and state historic tax credits, and promoting energy efficiency retrofits for older buildings as a business development tool. 
  • Build the capacity of the development community. If we want a sustainable approach to community development, we need greater diversity among participants in real estate development. Jacksonville is a prime example of a place where education, training, and incentives for new and small developers—including community organizations—could make a big difference. 

Read the recently released report for a full analysis of Jacksonville, including the complete explanation of barriers and solutions as well as maps, graphics, and charts that illustrate the city’s opportunity for building reuse. 

Margaret O’Neal is the senior manager for the Preservation Green Lab.

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