October 1, 2020
In The Public Interest
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More Broken Promises? Metropolitan Park

Curry Administration seeks to privatize Metropolitan Park

The story of Metropolitan Park — Jacksonville’s “people’s park” — has been told over many years by civic leaders, government insiders, chamber of commerce ambassadors, and news reporters alike. Lately we’ve been hearing a different story, this one from the perspective of private  developers and City attorneys. These players are determined to transform the people’s park into an “entertainment zone,” the centerpiece of which will be a high end hotel and marina for the few.  

Creating Metropolitan Park

pic of marina in downtown Jacksonville
Credit: COJ.net Metropolitan Park in its heyday.

The Park’s creation story unfolds with passion, wit, intrigue and determination. At its core, it is a political story full of pratfalls and pitfalls, twists and turns, good guys and bad guys—some surprising ones at that—that ultimately conveys a big win for the common people of Jacksonville. 

Mike Tolbert’s 2019 biography of Mayor Jake Goldbold explains the extraordinary leadership and vision exercised by Goldbold to create a park to serve the public interest in perpetuity. Simply titled Jake!, and aptly subtitled “The Last Southern Populist Mayor Who Transformed Jacksonville, Florida From a Sleepy City with an Inferiority Complex into a Dynamic Metropolis with a Can-Do Attitude,” Tolbert’s biography recounts the creation of Metro Park, what with all the  machinations of leading through a tangle of local, state and federal politics and grant protocols, nonprofit interests, and aspirations of corporate and individual donors. 

Even so – and inside the pressure cooker of federal guidelines, state-imposed deadlines and Godbold’s sheer force of will – the Park plan took shape. Godbold wrangled many key players into embracing a common vision  of a public park on the St. Johns’ Northbank, one that would be good for Jacksonville’s people and the City’s reputation as an up-and-coming Southern city.  A Times-Union editorial at the time declared, “Metropolitan Park . . . is an example of the best which can be accomplished in Jacksonville. When completed, the park will be dedicated to improving the quality of life of our citizens by utilizing this city’s unique resources and environment.”

Metro Park was envisioned as – and is still for the moment intended to be – a public gathering space dedicated for use in perpetuity by the people of Jacksonville. Forever, just plain folks would be guaranteed common and somewhat spacious access to the majestic St. Johns River, so the original vision and grant agreements proclaim.

Located directly across Gator Bowl Boulevard from TIAA Bank Field and adjacent to WJCT public radio/TV station, Metro Park in its day hosted myriad events that attracted thousands from near and far. Jacksonville’s Jazz Festival, the City’s World of Nations Festival, Starry Nights (performed by Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra), and Shakespeare at the Met (offered by Theatre Jacksonville) all found the perfect outdoor venue at Metro Park.  

In addition, corporations hosted a variety of community events that required a large public gathering outdoor space downtown. Metropolitan Park took advantage of its ideal location on the banks of the St. Johns River, Jacksonville’s most celebrated natural amenity.

Competing Visions:  The Common People vs. High End Development

Today the Park is caught in the cross hairs of two distinctly divergent visions that serve two radically  different  constituents.

The first vision understands the Park in the context of how it was originally imagined and developed: to be a resource for recreation and public access to the River that would exist in perpetuity. This is not a stagnant vision. As Tolbert makes clear in Jake!, Godbold and his assembled team understood the need for a fluid and integrative park experience that could accommodate the unavoidable shifting interests of people, and the anticipated – and realized – growth of Jacksonville as an urban place where people would want to live, work and play.  Currently, a collaboration of civic minded nonprofits, RiverfrontParksNow, is advancing the idea to keep Metro Park as a public park and expand the public’s access to the St. Johns along its Northbank. (see Jaxlookout Riverfront Parks Now: Once in a Lifetime Opportunity).

The first step in advancing the alternative and opposing vision is captured in legislation (Ordinance 2019-0555) the Curry administration submitted in August 2019, which interestingly and without explanation is being withdrawn by the administration. 

The bill asks City Council to authorize $1.75 million from the City’s general fund to repay a federal grant used to help develop the original park. Repaying the grant, the bill states, would also release the City from its obligation to maintain perpetual public access to the 22.5 acres we know as Metropolitan Park. Writing for the Times-Union this past March, Mark Woods stated the plan here was to “open the park for private development.” https://www.jacksonville.com/story/news/columns/2020/03/07/mark-woods-in-jacksonville-in-perpetuity-isnt-forever/112243862/

If successful, the administration’s effort would abolish Metro Park.  It would undermine Mayor Godbold’s original vision. And it would break the City’s promise to maintain a public park on the St. Johns Northbank forever.  

Ironically, the legislation  asks the public to repay Metro Park partial development costs for a park it owns so the public can relinquish its ownership of the park to private developers. In other words, the bill seeks to privatize a public asset.

But it’s impossible to know what the public gains in exchange.

Not to mention, $1.75 million does not account for inflation over almost 40 years, local dollars invested in the Park’s development including $1 million from cash strapped WJCT, and maintenance fees paid by nonprofits that produced events at Metro Park.   What about repaying those investors?

A Confused Public

Are you confused yet? 

Why would the citizens of Jacksonville support repaying a grant the City used decades ago to partially develop Metro Park  only to turn around and hand the land itself  to private developers? Should it? Is private development the highest and best use of the property? And if successful, what is the Curry Administration’s vision for creating a public park in perpetuity along the St. Johns Northbank?

A Piecemeal Approach

Woods recently described the purported private development: Iquana Investments’ renderings “show 22.5 acres of Met Park being [privately] developed – and pieces of greenspace [emphasis added] elsewhere on the Northbank adding up to 22.5 acres.”

https://www.jacksonville.com/story/news/columns/mark-woods/2020/08/02/parks-united-america-imagine-what-could-do-they-could-jacksonville/5558646002/

Woods also describes the complicated process  the Curry Administration would use to develop other public land as a public park to replace  Metropolitan Park (the “land-swap”) should it not be able to break the City’s promise that the people’s park would exist in perpetuity. 

While the original grant agreement acknowledges that a scenario in which the City chooses to repurpose Metropolitan Park space might emerge, it holds that the City can only do so within certain restrictive parameters. For example, the grant agreement  anticipates comparable properties — a single tract of land along  the St. Johns  in downtown, not a number of smaller properties that equate to the acreage of the Park as is described in the Iguana Investments plan. Further, the grant agreement  stipulates that “. . . the law discourages casual ‘discards’ of park and recreation facilities by ensuring that the changes or ‘conversions’ from recreation use will bear a cost . . .”

What Happened?

stage area Metropolitan Park 2020
Metropolitan Stage without tent, 2020. Photo credit: Robert Arleigh White
clear walkways in downtown Riverfront park
Well maintained Metropolitan Park walkways, 2020. Credit: Robert Arleigh White

Given Metro Park’s past popularity and success, one wonders, what happened?  Neglect?  Lack of public interest?  Are we our own worst enemy, never sticking to a vision and plan, refusing to invest in ourselves?  

Last week, editorial staff at www.jaxlookout.com took a field trip to the Park. The performance tent – the central feature for anchoring events and bringing people together – over time suffered deterioration due to lack of maintenance.  Although the tent was removed in 2017, the concrete staging area is intact. The property itself remains appealing and is well-maintained. We witnessed workers mowing grass. Landscaping is being  tended and the walkways are clear of debris. The marina is in a state of disrepair. 

photo of stage area with park behind
Current view of Metropolitan Park stage with St. Johns in background, 2020. Credit: Robert Arleigh White

What’s Next?  Downtown Investment Authority and City Council Finance Committee

In a curious turn, the Curry Administration last week withdrew its legislative request to repay the federal grant, an action it previously argued would break the “in perpetuity” agreement.  At the same time, Iguana Investments claims that its plans for developing the Metro Park space would not be affected by the Administration’s  withdrawal of the bill. 

In fact, on Wednesday, August 19 the Downtown Investment Authority’s board of directors will consider Resolution 2020-08-03: Met Park Access Agreement that will allow Iguana Investments to conduct environmental testing at Metro Park. The resolution states the testing may be performed “in anticipation of preparing an offer to acquire” the property. (www.jaxdailyrecord.com/article.environmental-testing-proposed-at-metropoloitan-park). (read DIA Resolution 2020-08-03 by copying and pasting this link in your browser: https://dia.coj.net/getattachment/8f9a3fd0-5ff0-4c0a-9d28-af5d2d63468d/8f9a3fd0-5ff0-4c0a-9d28-af5d2d63468d.aspx)

And City Council’s Finance Committee is requesting a presentation from the Curry Administration to explain its reason for withdrawing the legislation and the process that would allow Iguana Investments to continue to develop the public park space. This discussion is slated for the Finance Committee agenda for Tuesday, August 18, at 9:30 am.

Learn more about the City’s plans for the people’s park, the largest – and one of the only – public gathering spaces along the St. Johns River. Join the Finance Committee meeting via Zoom or in person, and the DIA meeting via zoom.

City Council Finance Committee August 18, 2020 9:30 a.m. (If attending virtually, please join the meeting by 9:15 A.M.) Virtual & In-Person Meeting
Physical Location: Council Chambers
City Hall
117 W. Duval Street
Jacksonville, Florida  32202

Meeting ID: 973 9649 6408
Password: 288802

DIA Board Meeting: August 19, 2020: 2 pm

August 19, 2020 2:00 PMDowntown Investment Authority Board Meeting
PUBLIC MEETING NOTICE FOR ZOOM MEETING
(**No physical location will be available for this public meeting**) 
Notice is hereby given that the City of Jacksonville Downtown Investment Authority (“DIA”) will meet on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at 2:00 PM via Zoom pursuant to State of Florida Executive Order 20-69 (Emergency Management-COVID-19-Local Government Public Meetings)The purpose of this meeting is for the DIA to consider and take action on items on the DIA agenda.

Interested persons desiring to attend this meeting can only do so via Zoom (including by computer or telephone) using the following meeting access information:

Join Zoom Meeting
https://zoom.us/j/98057093029?pwd=ZHdXU0FuVjdQTGRjZWkzVzRGU3kxdz09

Meeting ID: 980 5709 3029
Passcode: 923591

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Written by
Robert Arleigh White

Robert Arleigh White has many years of experience managing nonprofit arts organizations in North Florida where he has also been active in promoting a host of arts related initiatives. In recognition of over 20 years of successful legislative and community advocacy, the City of Jacksonville proclaimed August 12 as “Robert Arleigh White Day,” and Jacksonville’s City Council similarly authorized a resolution in his honor. Previously, Mr. White served as the executive and artistic director for Theatre Jacksonville where he led the organization from near fiscal insolvency to become one of the State of Florida’s most successful artistic venues. While there, he also was directly responsible for the artistic direction of fifty plays and worked to produce dozens more. Currently, Bob is the principal for Robert Arleigh White + Associates where he consults with nonprofits on development, infrastructure and organizational storytelling.

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3 comments
  • I appreciate, Bob, your comprehensive and thoughtful piece. About Metropolitan Park, I have long felt it was outstanding for special events, but less so for the casual park user. In my mind, I have an image of the Charleston, SC, riverfront which is an accessible park, downtown on the river. Would it be possible for a swap of park land that insured that all 22.5 acres are riverfront extending from the Times-Union Center toward Metro Park for as far as it would go, providing people living downtown with better access, as well as folks from the suburbs in trade for Metro Park? It could have boat ramps, walk ways, picnic tables, shade trees and other amenities that would make the park a destination for residents and visitors. The mayor would have to agree that all of the park would be river view, private development would have to enhance it, and Metro Park’s replacement would be more attractive and more used than the current site.

Written by Robert Arleigh White

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