Jacksonville, FL — Your Downtown Jacksonville drive could look much different in a few years, with the City of Jacksonville hoping that’s a key step in changing the makeup of Downtown overall.
It was close to two years ago that the idea of taking down the Hart Bridge ramps in Downtown was first put forward by Mayor Lenny Curry. Since then, Jaguars owner Shad Khan and his development team have promoted the concept, as something that's vital to their redevelopment efforts at the Jacksonville Shipyards and Sports Complex.
WOKV has now obtained a copy of the City’s BUILD 2018 federal grant application, which gives new insight on exactly why the City sees this move as so valuable. We’ve also obtained a new map of the proposed project, providing insight on the change you can expect for your drive, if the funding lines up.
The City's grant application puts the project's total cost at $37,462,500. The Florida Department of Transportation has made $12.5 million available for the City, as a matching grant. Curry is proposing the City borrow its $12.5 million share- a plan that still has to be approved by the City Council. That leaves $12,462,500 in funding that still needs to be secured, and this grant is asking for that from the US Department of Transportation.
This BUILD grant application comes after the City fell short on a previous bid for $25 million in federal funding. Since that time, they've been able to drop the price tag on the overall project, so that the gap is around $12.5 million instead, and still includes a contingency.
Curry’s Chief of Staff Brian Hughes tells WOKV they expect to find out if they receive this new grant funding by the end of October. While he says they’re “optimistic” that will come through, the project is designed in phases, so that they can continue moving forward regardless.
The grant application says the project is expected to be done and open to traffic by mid-November 2021.
Khan and his development team have made it clear in recent project proposals that taking down the Hart Expressway ramps is necessary for future development. They recently pitched a $2.5 billion vision for the Sports Complex and Shipyards area, but say removing the ramps is an important step toward achieving that.
The BUILD grant application explains why.
The elevated Hart Expressway lanes in Downtown were designed to quickly bring people in and out of the heart of Downtown. When this three-quarter mile stretch was built decades ago, the Shipyards was active. The expressway was designed to get people past that industrialized area, and it was elevated in order to get over gantry cranes used at the site. The express route further served as a quick and easy way people could expand to live in new suburbs, while still working in Downtown.
While the elevated lanes served their purpose for their time, they now bypass not only the Sports Complex and Shipyards, but the neighborhoods there. Keeping people on the elevated lanes on this route- quickly going in and out of the core, with no way to stop along Bay Street- therefore means vehicle traffic and foot traffic alike are diverted from any businesses that may want to set up along the 85 acres of property that can be developed along the St. Johns River.
“People are not only going into downtown to work and be entertained but are moving closer to the urban core. This structure has become an impediment to progress in Jacksonville,” the grant application says.
The City says poorly placed infrastructure like this has obstructed Downtown development in recent years, with this project specifically also serving to separate the Riverfront from the property on the other side of the elevated roadway.
“The elevated bypass expressway is a remnant of an old planning vision for infrastructure, when highways were designed to provide commuters the ability to avoid urban cores. This planning philosophy resulted in urban areas all over the country being split in half. One side saw upward mobility and the other side was literally walled off from prosperity,” the grant application says.
The City says, in the area now, the elevated lanes only serve as a barrier.
“The challenge today for Jacksonville is that the elevated expressway destroyed all possibility of urban renewal and investment on the eastern end of the north bank of the St. Johns River, one of the city’s best natural transportation and amenity assets. The elevated Hart Bridge Expressway creates not only a physical barrier to development, but a practical and psychological barrier as well by forcing traffic to completely bypass the former old shipyards, the Sports and Entertainment Complex, and approximately one-third of the downtown footprint,” the grant application says.
The belief is that bringing the Hart Bridge traffic down on to Bay Street by the stadium will create more foot traffic, meaning restaurants, shops, and similar businesses would have the customer base needed to survive.
“The city owned land continues to lack development and thus, any meaningful productivity. This project will reverse this stagnation and quite literally pave the way for a more progressive and vibrant city,” the grant application says.
Investment in the area
The City and Khan have partnered in recent years to push redevelopment in this area.
They partnered to build an amphitheater- Daily’s Place- at the site of TIAA Bank Field, which hosts concerts and other events, in addition to being activated for game day experiences. That deal also included big improvements to the stadium itself, including upgraded Club Level seating.
Khan was chosen by Jacksonville's Downtown Investment Authority to redevelop the vacant Shipyards site with hotels, apartments, restaurants, retail, and more.
Those negotiations were recently granted an extended timeline, which could allow them to continue for a couple of years, although the Jags have said they don't plan to wait that long to work on their next project, which is the development of Lot J. This is an existing parking lot at the stadium, which the team wants to change in to an entertainment space, while also adding hotel rooms, office space, and a parking garage.
A potential first phase of the Shipyards development itself could be a Convention Center and hotel. While the DIA solicited bids for building those at the site of the old County Courthouse and City Hall Annex, Khan's team put forward a competing proposal to instead have those built on the Shipyards property, as the first phase of the redevelopment. The DIA has not yet commented on the proposal.
Between Lot J, the Shipyards, and a greater vision for the Sports Complex, Khan believes the development could be worth some $2.5 billion in all. They will be seeking City partnership along the way, including with this project, saying that it is vital to their vision.
“This $37.5 million project will fund less than one mile of transportation improvements while inducing $2.5 billion in private sector investment into the urban core of Jacksonville,” the grant application says.
That's far from the only redevelopment effort in Downtown as well- the Birkman Plaza II was recently sold, the Laura Street Trio is undergoing a large-scale revitalization, The District is moving forward on the Southbank, and many other smaller projects are in motion. The City believes this is a turning point for Downtown, and this project is the key to unlocking the potential.
It all leads to the question of what exactly the changes would look like.
WOKV has obtained the most recent map of the proposed project. This is subject to change, as design efforts continue, but the City says it’s a good representation of what they’re hoping to achieve.
The ramps from the Hart Bridge to MLK and Liberty Street on the east side of the stadium will remain intact, and traffic will flow on to those ramps to head to the bridge the same as well. The ramps that currently carry traffic to “Downtown”- or Duval and Adams streets- are the ones that would instead now go down to grade at Bay Street. A new signalized four-way intersection would be created at the intersection of Gator Bowl Blvd and Bay Street, where the road now just turns around the stadium.
“This will reverse the decades-long negative effects of historic federal highway planning that bifurcated the city’s most valuable land,” the grant application says.
The capacity on Bay Street would be increased, with at least three lanes heading in each direction- instead of a total of five lanes- and some additional turn lanes. The map indicates there will be medians added to the road, although we’re told the plan is to still use reversible lanes, like the ones currently in place, where the direction of the lane can be changed, depending on the traffic flow needed for a certain event or time.
The portion of the ramps that drop traffic off on Duval and Adams, and pick traffic up off Forsyth and Monroe, will remain standing. Around Georgia Street, which is between the stadium lots and A. Philip Randolph Blvd, drivers heading west on Bay Street would then have a choice to make. They can continue on Bay Street, in which case they will continue on the lanes in a similar manner as they are now, or they can connect back up to the existing ramps, and get dropped off closer to the Downtown core. The ramps pick back up just east of APR, near Intuition.
The City is currently not planning to remove the portion of those ramps at the western end of Bay Street, because there is no immediate push for development there- where we have the Duval County Jail, Maxwell House, and more- so the ramps are not the same obstruction that they are closer to the stadium. Traffic from west of the ramps, heading east, can either pick up at the ramps as they are now- which would carry them to Bay Street instead of the Hart Bridge- or drive down Bay Street directly.
Safety and other features
In addition to getting rid of an “eyesore”, this project would also improve safety, according to the grant application. They would use traffic calming measures- like raised medians and curbs- to increase bike and pedestrian usability, among other things. The project map shows several areas of new or upgraded sidewalk and some bike lanes.
The speed limit in the area would be 35 miles per hour. The City hopes that the reduced speed- compared to the elevated lanes- along with the other proposed improvements, would make the area much safer for walking and riding a bike, in addition to driving.
WOKV previously told you the Jacksonville Transportation Authority is seeking federal funding, with partners, to build a transportation corridor in Downtown- including Bay Street- which could include driverless shuttles. This BUILD grant applications says taking down the Hart Bridge ramps could serve to create an active corridor for pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, and ride sharing services.
Additionally, the grant application says the Hart Bridge Expressway has “reached its useful life”. Life cycles costs are expected to drop with a newer road structure, especially one that’s planned to better meet current and future needs.
Aside from the roadway infrastructure, the grant application also says the City would install broadband conduits, to allow future providers to better serve low-income neighborhoods in that area. Old lights would be swapped for new LED lights, which are expected to have a longer lifespan and lower maintenance costs.
There is also consideration given to environmental concerns. The grant application says there are plans for mitigating flooding and maintaining weather resiliency overall.
The Finance Committee, and then the full City Council, still need to sign on to the Mayor’s funding plan for the City’s $12.5 million contribution to this project. That final vote will take place as part of the overall City budget approval process, which will be completed before the start of the next fiscal year on October 1st.
The Hart Bridge funding specifically is part of the City's Capital Improvement Program, which is vetted alongside the overall $1.2 billion City budget proposal.
WOKV continues to go in depth on the Mayor’s budget and spending plans for the City, to track how your tax dollars may be spent. Stay with us as we continue to gather more information.