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Study offers plan for LaVilla neighborhood

By Mike Mendenhall, Reporter - Jacksonville Daily Record

The Downtown Investment Authority and Jacksonville Transportation Authority released its final report Friday on plans to redevelop the city’s historic LaVilla district.

The vision emphasizes returning a major residential component to LaVilla, with a mix of workforce and senior housing on top of mid-market for-purchase townhomes and market rate rentals.

The study, conducted by consulting firm GAI’s Community Solutions Group, builds the residential components around an expansion of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park — dedicated to Harlem Renaissance-era composer J. Rosamond Johnson — and a new Arts Gateway Park and a Heritage Trail.

Along with cultural components along the route honoring the area’s black history, the trail will be able connect LaVilla to the city’s other investments on the St. John’s River.

The report Friday follows the last of four public meetings.

Nearly 60 neighborhood stakeholders and city leaders filled the Ritz Theatre and Museum on Thursday to hear the results of the LaVilla Neighborhood Development Strategy report— an eight-month joint project between the DIA and JTA to revitalize the neighborhood.

DIA and JTA officials said Thursday the abundance of publicly owned property in LaVilla, along with accessibility to the surrounding area by the $53.7 million Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center slated to open in the neighborhood in early 2020, makes fast-tracking development more viable.

LaVilla, once called the Harlem of the South, was a sanctuary for black culture commerce in post-United States Civil War era. The oldest suburb of Jacksonville, once its own incorporated community, operated with autonomy from the rest of Jacksonville in the late-1800s with many black business owners, churches, schools and associations.

The post-World War II era and the late 20th century saw a decline in LaVilla’s influence as many of its historic homes and buildings were demolished.

Brian Hughes, DIA interim CEO and Mayor Lenny Curry's chief of staff, said the public meeting process, which began Sept. 4, quickly made clear any redevelopment in LaVilla needed to honor and incorporate the cultural significance of the Downtown district.

As the DIA prepares to issue requests for proposals for the development strategy’s priority projects, Hughes said key criteria for awarding a contract will be an understanding of those cultural and historical elements of LaVilla’s future.

“In a process where we encourage developers to come in, they have to demonstrate they understand what this road map is talking about,” he said after the Thursday presentation.

“It involves smart residential — residential that takes into consideration the public space that’s going to be integral because it will be part of this cultural history the neighborhood celebrates,” Hughes said.

“The developers, as they go through the process, they have a willingness and attention to making everything in this study a priority of what they plan to do,” he said.

Hughes anticipates the DIA will begin discussions on bringing in private investment for the project within the next two months. The DIA board’s next meeting is May 15.

Read the full report from the Jacksonville Daily Record