January 26, 2022
In The Public Interest

“Woefully inadequate”: Jacksonville’s design standards

Jacksonville resiliency planning inadequate and threatens neighborhoods and community assets

RESILIENCY PLANNING: Jacksonville “late to the game”

In a recent presentation to the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Eric Olsen declared Jacksonville’s resiliency planning for the St. John’s riverfront at least “six years behind the curve.” Calling the City’s downtown design standards “woefully inadequate” when it comes to flooding and resiliency, Olsen said City standards ignore the effect river dredging, tides, Nor’Easters, wind, waves, torrential rainfall, and of course hurricanes, have on flooding.

It’s as if 2017’s Hurricane Irma, a mere Category One storm when it hit Jacksonville from the south, never happened.

credit: Olsen Associates presentation
a flooded urban neighborhood
Olsen Associates presentation

Compared to other Florida east coast counties, “we’re literally six years late to the game.” Those counties “know what their resiliency liabilities are and what their resiliency needs are.” The City of Jacksonville needs to “hurry it up,” but the City can’t “until they acknowledge” the need to incorporate “resiliency features” into downtown development, claims Olsen. In response to a question about a holistic approach to resiliency, Olsen said that “we look at generating multi-million dollar expenditures with the gas tax, but I don’t see anybody talking about money for resiliency. Not dollar one. Yet those [resiliency needs] are probably the biggest fiscal liabilities the City has.”

According to Olsen, the City of Jacksonville uses outdated downtown FEMA flood maps and City planning is piecemeal, or in his words, “site-specific,” basically ignoring the need to take a comprehensive approach to downtown waterfront development and resiliency. Olsen claims the City is ignoring the effect current river dredging will have on “nuisance” flooding, defined by NOAA as “flooding which causes public inconveniences such as frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains and compromised infrastructure” (“Memorandum of Findings,” THE SHIPYARDS, JACKSONVILLE Flood Risk Assessment and Resiliency Guidance, dated 16 September 2020, revised November 2, 2020, p. 7). By 2060, Olsen claims that sea level will measure 2 feet higher than today, and that the frequency with which area nuisance flooding occurs will increase dramatically.


Jacksonville’s “biggest challenge,” Olsen argues, “is acknowledging the need to develop resilience. It’s basically being slow-walked.” Olsen added that the “big players,” that is the North and Southbank urban core developers, “know what resiliency design is all about,” but their interest is understandably limited to the properties they are developing, and not on the entire urban core with its surrounding neighborhoods. Obviously, protecting their individual properties is in their best financial interests, but protecting neighborhoods, the urban core, and community assets such as urban core hospitals, is the responsibility of the City.

Olsen’s “Memorandum” recommends that the City of Jacksonville “fund a third-party special purpose flood vulnerability study for the City core based upon storm tracks similar to H. (Hurricane) Irma” (Memorandum of Findings, p. 20).


Eric Olsen is Principal Emeritus with Olsen Associates, Inc., a local coastal engineering firm that “specializes in the study, design, permitting, and management of projects located in coastal and estuarine environments.” https://www.olsen-associates.com/ Notably, Olsen Associates was hired by England, Thims & Miller, the project engineer Shad Khan’s Iquana Investments hired to advise on developing the downtown Shipyards site. Olsen Associates was asked to “provide design guidance with respect to sea level rise, storm surge vulnerability, nuisance flooding and other dynamic phenomena (including waves) that could affect the SHIPYARDS site” [“Memorandum of Findings,” p. 1).

The observations Olsen shared with local architects are based on that November 2020 study.


photo of riverfront park area
St. Johns River north bank

During the Zoom discussion, Olsen seemed to embrace the Riverfront Parks Now comprehensive approach to protecting Jacksonville against flooding, protecting valuable commercial property, individual homes, and neighborhoods alike. “I think the preservation of the riverfront downtown through parks is a step in the right direction with respect to incorporating resiliency components into our future downtown development,” Olsen said. Calling the St. Johns River “our biggest amenity and out biggest enemy,” Olsen said constructing buildings further back from the water and using “landscape features between buildings will mitigate nuisance flooding and limit the effects of storms.” https://www.riverfrontparksnow.org


Jacksonville’s downtown urban core, including north and south riverbanks, and historic neighborhoods located south of the urban core — Riverside, Avondale, and San Marco — Olsen says are the most vulnerable to nuisance flooding, a likely more frequent event caused by an increase in the water elevation of the St. Johns River. That increase will occur eventually because of sea-level rise but more immediately because of river dredging. Olsen explained that Jacksonville currently uses gravity to drain low-lying neighborhoods when high tides, torrential rainfall, Nor’easters, and hurricanes cause area flooding. That approach only works when river water levels lie naturally below storm drains. However, as water levels become higher regardless of the cause, river dredging, episodic storms, or higher sea levels, land will not drain. Olsen argues that Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods and downtown will need to rely on pumps to move storm water away from developed property, but that no discussion about the need for pumps is occurring.


If Olsen is right, if “our biggest challenge” is the City of Jacksonville’s need to acknowledge that frequent and devastating flooding is a given, then he says “the word needs to get out with regard to sea level rise scenarios.”

Your role: ask city council members if they’ve read Olsen’s report to Iquana’s consultants? and widely share the link to Olsen’s presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qoLGgbTllc

Written by
Sherry Magill

Sherry Magill is a community leader and retired private foundation executive. She is a co-founder of Jaxlookout.

View all articles
Written by Sherry Magill

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