I'm all for reviving and renewing Arlington, as long as it's not going to wake up all cranky on us. I have enough experience in urban planning (as a college student and connoisseur) to be able to predict a few major concerns with renewing Arlington, whether or not some hot-shot Miami developer says it's going to happen. And I don't have millions of dollars or years of experience in the neighborhood. Just sense.
The Good News
Arlington is close to perfect as a location, transportation-wise, as is the eyesore of a hotel that's potentially being redeveloped. Where I live in East Arlington is pretty great, too. It's all manageable to downtown and a straight shot to the beach. It doesn't freeze as often on this side of town, which is a bonus, but we're still in-town, pretty much.
The Rest of the News isn't Good
Sticking something fancy somewhere it doesn't fit is not a good idea. Changing the purpose of one building or one mall won't do it. Forcing businesses to change signage isn't the answer. I think the technical urban planning term is putting lipstick on a pig, even though the landscape architects and planners who want to cash paychecks will keep telling you it's using design to change people and place.
Here are some examples from my past that can speak to what Arlington is considering now:
Case in point, when I was an urban planning student at UW-Milwaukee, one of the big projects in town was the rehabilitation of Capitol Court. It was one of the original shopping malls, back when that area of town was vibrant and expanding in the 60s. Sounds familiar, maybe. Anyhow, I grew up going to the mall. I saw ET at the theater there. Then the neighborhood turned pretty bad. People were afraid to go to the mall. It was mostly empty by the mid-90s. Then it became a planning project. Human-scale was big. Landscaping. Open areas. Seating. A Wal-Mart. Mixed use. These planners and architects actually stood in front of my class saying that their designs would be able to change how the people felt about the space, leading those people to appreciate it and behave less like felons while shopping. It probably sounded great to my classmates, but I grew up near Capitol Court, so I knew better.
It took a little more time, and it probably looked nicer in its demise, but the Midtown Center could not really rise from the ashes of Capitol Court. Lowes, Walmart, Sears, Penneys, etc. Every anchor closed, and just a lot of open and empty space. The jobs, if that was part of the plan, are gone. Facades, archways, parking lot paths, green spaces, and trees, all make it look too good to be true, which is totally accurate. The problem with Capitol Court wasn't the design: it's like the Town Center, but on a smaller scale. The problem was the neighbors. The people who lived there weren't going to go from low-income and high-crime residents to suburban soccer moms just because the local shopping center planted some trees and slapped a new name on the building.
Marquette University, facing a similar problem to Capitol Court, took a different approach. An approach that was ridiculed by some members of my mentors at UW-Milwaukee, even as it was admittedly somewhat effective. The school needed to keep enrollment up, but real or perceived crime in the surrounding neighborhoods kept students away. What could the college possibly do? Buy the surrounding neighborhoods, that's what. Marquette made no attempt to fix poverty with economic redevelopment, and it wasn't looking to use urban design to change attitudes of poverty-stricken people. No, it just bought up block upon block of buildings and kicked those folks out so that Heather and Ashley could have an apartment in a safer neighborhood next to the school.
Another way an area in Milwaukee turned itself around to the exclusion of the residents was in Brewers Hill. Basically, young professionals working downtown realized that they could get sweet deals on awesome old houses and fix them up, in a neighborhood just next to downtown that wasn't known for being totally safe. Enough of these people bought the houses that the area started changing, and people who'd lived there for decades weren't even able to afford the newly-assessed property taxes. It's like the reverse of what was often called White Flight or blockbusting in the North. New paint, landscaping, and a Prius in every garage. And a short commute to downtown.
So what do these cautionary tales tell us about Arlington? First off, it's too big of an area to just buy up the whole thing, so it makes sense to focus on parts, which is what the local government has done. However, from what I've read, it seems that the plan is to force the businesses to make the changes that will trickle down to the surrounding neighborhoods. The problem is that it's all about the people who live and show up at those businesses. If there are payday stores, pawn shops, dollar stores, and internet cafes in an area, I personally am not going to get out and shop. But it doesn't make sense to have a Rolex store next to Section 8 apartments and dilapidated townhouses.
Renewing Arlington starts with the residents. If we decide as a community that we live in an area that's worth renewing, then we need to treat our own homes and neighbors with respect. And we need to expect it out of our neighbors, which means taking action if there's an apartment complex that contributes to the real or perceived run-down feel. Sometimes, renewal is in the form of low or no-interest loans to resident homeowners for general maintenance, but it might also involve running out the slumlords. It might be about community policing, too. In many respects, however, it comes down to pride. It's easier to just use up your house and then build a new one down in St. Johns County, but that's a lot harder to do if you know and like your neighbors, and appreciate the convenient location.
My own neighborhood in Milwaukee was terribly overpriced. That's because people wanted to live there, even if they could get a larger house on the northwest side of town, and even if the houses on the near north side had a lot more character. People took pride in their homes, and the neighborhood was safe, so location is what sold the homes. Easy access to the freeway and downtown were added value. Where I lived in Milwaukee has a lot of similarities to Arlington, except that area was never allowed to fall apart. Still, not all hope is lost if the smallish, oldish Arlington homes are seen as being in the best location near downtown and the beaches.
New business development does play a role in fixing Arlington, as does the maintaining of current business. However, putting a few bushes outside the adult entertainment club or store, while ironic, isn't going to fix the problem of having businesses that cater to the people who live here. You're not going to see any pawn shops in Ponte Vedra because they'd go out of business or be run out of town. And that's not because rich people never need to pawn stuff to pay for their mansions; it's because their mansions aren't worth as much if there's a pawn shop down the road.
My old neighborhood in Lenexa was just outside of Kansas City, not even as close as Arlington is to Jacksonville. It saw the opportunity along the 435 and 35 for being a great place for national headquarters and distribution centers. That worked well for the town, and it's frankly more sightly than used tire
and rent-a-rim shops. Doing that, however, is all about infrastructure, making sure trucks can get in and out easily. By contrast, the 295 corridor in Arlington seems to have been established as new single-family homes, along with typical urban-sprawl big-box retailers nearby. Sure, that works as long as everyone who lives there works downtown, but Arlington should also push for more than retail chains alongside vast subdivisions.
We get excited about the new Wawa or Starbucks, but I'd get a lot more excited about a legitimate business park. Honestly, many businesses can operate outside of the main downtown areas, and once St. Johns County realizes this, we'll see more and more CEOs pushing for their commutes to be shorter. All of Jacksonville's inner-ring suburbs should be trying to establish working-wage jobs in the area before those jobs leave the county altogether. Where was Arlington's proposal for the new JEA headquarters? Does Arlington even propose anything on its own, or is it all just part of some trickle-down development system that favors downtown and sprawl rather than redevelopment?
I looked at a crime map of Arlington, and one trend was clear: one of the most concentrated area of assaults and robberies stems from right around University and Merrill. Even though JU is right down the road from us, I have not even considered it for my kids, and that's why. If that's not a simple concept for the highly-educated staff at JU, then I feel bad for them. UNF, almost no crime, so that's the direction I'll be leaning when my kids ask me which local college is best. JU certainly has a stake in cleaning its neighborhood up, just like Marquette did in Milwaukee.
Another trend that is impossible to miss is that crime is centered around apartment complexes that, when you view them on Google Streetview, look like apartment complexes where crime would take place. I know, it's sad that people maybe moved to Arlington to escape crime in another part of town, but if the crime kind of follows those people, then it's our problem now. If I was an alderman for part or all of Arlington, I'd look at the crime near these apartments, but I'd also look to see where the victims and perpetrators live. Forcing the rental company to fix some leaks won't make the crime go away, and neither will extra police presence near the crimes (we've been mapping crime for decades, so there's already more presence there). What makes it go away is lack of access, meaning the places where the victims and criminals live no longer exist in Arlington. Someone out there is crying that these people need to live somewhere, but Arlington would be better off raising a sales tax to help build these new apartments in some other part of Jacksonville. Or even a property tax surcharge. I'm serious, if people who live here knew all the stats, many of them would jump on board. Even if some of the crime is committed by someone who crosses a bridge to get to Arlington, it's generally to visit someone who lives here before going on the crime spree.
Arlington suffers from a rental problem, and not just in the apartments. I understand that the military personnel are going to rent, and they're good tenants, from what I understand. I know some renters in my neighborhood who do a good job taking care of their places. However, nothing makes someone care about property values more than actual home ownership. Some kind of Own Arlington initiative could play a large role in turning the community around. Again, it might take low-interest loans or a unique rent-to-own arrangement, but if we can get a larger percentage of our residents to own their properties, then they will care more about the signs at the local mini-mall and the crime near the local apartment complex.
The Arlington Expressway seems to be a 70s solution to road widening, and I have to wonder if it's considered best practices in planning today (or ever really was). The insane on and off-ramps, one way and sometimes two-way frontage roads, and obvious disrepair along it all mean that a redevelopment of an old hotel into an apartment complex will result in another money pit waiting to happen. Someone, somewhere must have come up with a better way to handle this stretch of road by now.
Since the 295 is up for road work and toll-installation, it's a good time to consider elements that can help in creating the proper infrastructure for Arlington's future. For example, there's a lot of underutilized commercial land along St. Johns Bluff near the airport that has easy access to the 295 and the small airport. More forest along Monument, as well. These areas need to be looked at as real business opportunities rather than more retail malls or apartment complexes. Places that might pay wages that will allow people to purchase homes in the area.
Do you think the folks over in Avondale consider Arlington when they want something done in their area? Does downtown worry about us? St. Johns? Of course not. People in Avondale live in wonderfully overpriced homes because they've maintained a nice neighborhood near downtown. In fact, most of us in Arlington are just as close to downtown (time-wise). But those folks need to spend twice as long on the road to get to the beaches. The people down in St. Johns need nice, wide expressways to get to downtown in a hurry, but that should not concern us in Arlington. In fact, if we could ensure our roads stay fast and safe, people might decide that 45 minutes from Nocatee to downtown is too much executive time in the German touring sedan, opting to return to Arlington. This has happened in the Milwaukee area with a suburb named Wauwatosa. It's become fashionable to move back to Tosa from the outer-ring suburbs because people realized they could have a small-town feel in a house with character, decent schools, and a real downtown within five miles of the lakefront and downtown Milwaukee. Wauwatosa didn't worry about how Milwaukee or West Allis or Brookfield or Wales felt about drawing young professionals to its thriving downtown.
Arlington was once the place to go. You could move out of the older Jacksonville homes elsewhere, closer to the beaches, with open spaces all around, and a nifty new mall. Now it's mostly developed and partially decaying, but it's not hopeless by any means. Arlington is just a hard sell to get someone to buy a 1,500 square foot cinder block home in the heart of an area where crime stats are peppered with batteries and property crime. People see Clay and St. Johns with less crime and higher property value. Plus, those areas don't have a dead mall and sketchy retail stores. Mainly, Arlington hasn't made a play to stay relevant as a place people want to embrace as a long-term home. There isn't a discernible downtown or riverwalk, and there aren't people riding their bikes on miles of off-street trails. No farmers market or free concerts. Still, we have a good base of quality housing in a great location, so it can still happen. When it does, we will have the advantage over the new sprawl going in too far from the city. The investment has to come from the people who want to live here, however, and that does not seem to be a trendy way of planning development in Northeast Florida.