by Tim Gilmore, 7/3/2022
The idea was to create a Jacksonville Central Park crossing several blocks, between Monroe and Duval Streets, from just south of St. Johns Cathedral at Market Street, across Newnan, Ocean, Main and Laura Streets to James Weldon Johnson Park at the center of the city. Not only would the design create a green swath and public commons through the heart of town, but it buried two levels of parking underneath, eliminating the perceived need for more garages. Parking storage wouldn’t have eaten up public space and wouldn’t have blocked up the view.
Architect Ted Pappas built the model for Jacksonville Central Park in the 1990s, the decade of Mayor John Delaney’s multi-billion dollar “Better Jacksonville Plan,” which included a staggering scope of municipal improvements, and the Preservation Project, which increased the city’s park system to nearly 100 square miles. Ultimately, the underground component, integral to the concept, was deemed unaffordable. It might have proved crucial to today’s downtown revitalization.
If the Visigoths sacked Jax, if the Seminoles rose again, if the Timucua rose from their millennia of coastal burials to exact revenge, their carnage would pale beside the damage wrought by parking lots and garages. To illustrate the point, please meet the flâneuX.
The flâneur is more than a stroller, a saunterer, a streetwalker. As a French loanword in English, “flâneur” connotes a way of experiencing the city upclose, of drinking it in, becoming one with it. It depends on the city as dense compression of human experience, a distillation of life both in space (in the diversity of vibrant city streets) and in time (in the accumulation of life up through history).
Poets and writers and philosophers from Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin have played with the flâneur as literary trope. Literary critics and Gender Studies theorists in the 21st century have used the flâneuse to ask questions of historic gender equality in public space.
In the blistering summer of 2022, the flâneuX helicopters into Downtown Jacksonville, Florida at the site of the first house, built in 1816 and long gone, where a parking garage has stood for 60 years. The flâneuX looks like the figure from the cover of Lauren Elkin’s 2017 book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London – a 19th century dandy with top hat and walking stick, all black and white, superimposed with a pink tutu.
The flâneuX walks a block north toward the City Planning Department in the Ed Ball Building, then turns west on West Adams. Here, just right of Planning but at the center of irony, the flâneuX spies walls of parking storage on both sides. Turning north on Julia Street, the canyons of parking storage continue. It’s early evening. There’s a single automobile on the street. Another irony.
When the flâneuX passes the parking garages on Monroe Street, a block from James Weldon Johnson Park, City Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jax, the Main Library, Chamblin’s Uptown, Gothic churches and historic Chicago-style skyscrapers, a piercing shriek comes on like a manic externalized tinnitus. It hurts. The flâneuX cries out.
This infernal sound is intentional. Its purpose is to drive people away and city officials permit it. It’s aimed at the homeless, as a pesticide. Just as lawn pesticides kill butterflies and destroy whole populations of bees, however, this high-pitched scream drives everyone away, not just its intended target.
The great urbanist Jane Jacobs titled her 1958 essay, “Downtown is for People.” The fact that such an obvious statement needed making, and does still, is another irony. The flâneuX takes several turns downtown, seeing but parking storage on either side, and guesses this particular Downtown is the opposite of Jacobs’s title.
This city, the flâneuX suspects, was made for parking storage, and weeps. Clearly, the flâneuX concludes, Jax has given up on its own heart and is redeveloping its center as Parking District. Meanwhile, city officials give credence to those suburbanites who don’t know a city from a shopping mall and claim they never come Downtown because there’s no place to park.
In a March 14, 2022 story in The Jaxson called “Parking Craters: A Downtown Vibrancy Killer,” Bill Delaney writes, “The term ‘parking crater’ was popularized in 2013 by Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog. According to Schmitt, ‘A parking crater is a depression in the middle of an urban area formed by the absence of buildings.’ As she put it in a later article, ‘Simply put, it’s a depression in the cityscape, a void where car storage has usurped land that should be devoted to buildings.’”
Delaney explains “what urban planners call the walkshed.” Picture a watershed and apply that image to “the distance most pedestrians will comfortably walk to reach a destination.” In urban spaces, that’s typically a five minute walk, a quarter mile, and a five minute walk packed with restaurants and shops and bars and galleries is an exciting experience. It draws people in. The flâneuX thrives there. The parking garage is its opposite.
That quarter mile multiplied across a city center, where people live and have all their basic needs met, describes a great city. The more that parking garage multiplies through the heart of town, however, the more the city hollows out. Parking storage is dead space. It’s osteoporosis.
Close cousin to the parking garage is the mammoth self-storage building. Historic structures in black neighborhoods like Brooklyn keep falling to multistory storage facilities. They line Interstate 95, upfront in the cityscape. Even where new five-over-one style apartment structures have sprung up near Downtown, the insensitivity of developers to the communities they replace is mind-numbing. When Vestcor demolished the house where Reggie Bridges, the unofficial historian of Brooklyn, had lived for 56 years, the company hung a banner on its construction fence promising the coming of “Urban Living” in 2020.
The flâneuX, carrying the image of osteoporosis, keeps noticing how city authorities try to disguise the effects of parking storage. They require sidewalk shopfront space, often centered on corners, often unused, bedeck multistory garages in colorful cladding, solicit artists to paint murals. Since shopfront space, color and art are necessary urban elements, their very necessity on parking storage points out the damage for which they’re supposed to compensate.
Jane Jacobs famously described the healthy urban environment as an “enormous collection of small elements, where people can see them, at street level.” As is so often the case, her genius obtains in pointing out what should be obvious but goes ignored. Where a city is most truly a city, it’s an ecosystem. It’s Victoria Street in Edinburgh, Portobello Road in London, North Beach in San Francisco, Quebec City.
As of 2019, Bill Delaney notes, Downtown Jacksonville already had 10,000 more parking spaces than Downtown Miami. In fact, Downtown Jax “has considerably more parking lots and other dead space than actively used buildings. A number of its buildings are isolated in a sea of surface lots, and we keep razing buildings to create even more.”
Even those garages attached to new construction metastasize space. That includes the new headquarters for the Jacksonville Electric Authority on West Adams Street and the new Fidelity Information Services Building on Riverside Avenue.
Bill clarifies “changes to the [JEA] design after Aaron Zahn was fired.” In March 2022, a grand jury indicted Zahn, former JEA chief executive, on conspiracy and wire fraud charges, after he and his cronies, with the backing of Mayor Lenny Curry, planned to enrich themselves by selling off the public utility. “The post-scandal board knocked” Zahn’s “bells and whistles” on the new building “and removed several floors,” Bill says. “They should have combined the tower and garage into a single building, but they didn’t want to go back to the drawing board.” Now the garage stands bigger than the building it’s supposed to serve.
Meanwhile, the Tampa architectural firm Gensler, whose motto is “Working Together to Reimagine the Future of Cities,” designed the new FIS Building. It stands glossy, blue and reflective as seen from the Acosta Bridge crossing the St. Johns River, but from street level in the neighborhood of Brooklyn, its mesh-clad parking garage presents an expansive parasitical dead zone with headquarters far behind.
I ask Bill for details about how massive self-storage buildings end up eclipsing the view of the city from the highway and how block after block of parking storage is allowed to eat up the heart of the city. While the process has snaked around through the years, currently the Downtown Investment Authority reviews the plans, the Downtown Development Review Board studies them, then City Council votes to approve them.
“Organizations,” Bill says, “will still build garages when they need dedicated parking, despite how many there already are. We have a major parking circulation problem and there are too many private parking lots and garages that sit empty much or most of the time. It’s all part of the same problem of allowing so much demolition where there’s so little new construction.”
The flâneuX grows old, but stays young. They’ve been walking cities as long as cities have been. In the ancient Fertile Crescent, they walked streets built upon by cities built upon by cities. Cities sunk, the earth rose, and cities rebuilt on top. The night sky determined earth structures through long seconds of ancient time.
I walk the flâneuX up Hogan Street, across from City Hall in Henry John Klutho’s Prairie style masterpiece, the St. James Building, and point to the restoration of architect Henrietta Dozier’s Old Federal Reserve Building, attached to Klutho’s 1924 Florida Baptist Convention Building, and how JWB Real Estate Capital is repurposing a surface parking lot into a central gathering space amidst three historic buildings.
I walk the flâneuX to San Marco Bookstore in San Marco Square, to Edge City and Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points, to the Klutho Apartments and Klutho House in Springfield. I walk the flâneuX to their point of ascension, a concrete lily pad atop a parking garage designed by architect Herb Coons for Atlantic National Bank on the site of the first house in Jacksonville in 1962.
Coons brought together a team of younger designers – Ted Pappas, Herschel Shepard, Bob Wolverton, Peter Rumple – and his team created a parking garage laced with copper honeycomb brise soleil along West Adams and wrapped north on Hogan Street before a concrete spiral atop a glass storefront, a ramp circling up.
I’ve spoken for the flâneuX where I should have let the flâneuX speak. In his 1863 book The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire does: “For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” The flâneuX is “the lover of universal life,” and ever liberally, “The lover of life makes the whole world his family,” the experiencer of the urban street “a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
Now we await the lifting off. The flâneuX grew up from the streets, so UFO cults, connoting the likes of Heaven’s Gate, don’t match the style, the psychology, the weltanschauung of the flâneuX, nor their way up out of the earth, their channeling up into being.
I so often fear I’ve come, with growing older, to limitations on my growth. But the flâneuX ever welcomes and walks with me, makes me a thousand years old and 17. We’ll be old and young in the city, as a city grows necessarily both old and young. Now we stand on the launch pad awaiting ascent.