The downtown Jacksonville riverfront, marked by the John T. Alsop Jr. “Main Street” Bridge, is a recognizable symbol for the city. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Driving over Main Street Bridge with the glow of city lights reflecting off the St. Johns River is a grand, and perhaps unexpected, entrance to a quiet coastal city. But, this is Jacksonville, a major metropolitan area escaping the spotlight for a laid-back quality of life with affordable real estate and proximity to the beach. Here’s what else you might not expect to find on Florida’s “First Coast.”
‘Little big town’
By land area, Jacksonville is the largest city in the contiguous United States, measuring 747 square miles, according to the latest Census data. This fact may be overlooked, however, because Jacksonville doesn’t feel like other metropolitan areas.
“A lot of people expect to find the coconut palms and typical tourist fare of South Florida, but it’s very laid back and down to earth here,” said Jacksonville resident Steve Asbell. “The city is very spread out, but the I-295 beltway makes commuting a lot easier than in most metropolitan areas.”
Jacksonville’s Walk Score® is 33, meaning most errands require a car. But locals say the city generally has shorter than average commute times and available downtown parking, making it feasible to drive to work.
Resident Ronique Gibson says Jacksonville is a “little big town” combining the best of metropolitan and small-town life.
“There are lots of Southerners that still have a professional and hospitable edge to them,” she said. “Whether you prefer waterfront living, urban, country or family suburban life, Jacksonville has it all.”
Chances are you’ve heard of Miami’s South Beach with its nonstop nightlife, but if there’s one thing that screams Jacksonville, it’s the beach.
“Jacksonville is known for its beautiful beaches, the Intracoastal Waterway and the St. Johns River,” explained travel blogger Tey VanJaarsveld. “Hence, it was coined ‘River City by the Sea.’”
In fact, the Jacksonville area has several nicknames alluding to its prime spot on the Atlantic, but none has stuck quite like “First Coast.” As the first area of Florida colonized by Europeans, the nickname is fitting. It was first coined in 1983 by an advertising agency for a Chamber of Commerce campaign to bring the five Jacksonville-area counties together without obscuring one area’s identity, according to a Florida Times-Union report. Today, you can’t go to Jacksonville without hearing about “First Coast” and its beautiful beaches.
Locals flock to Atlantic and Jacksonville beaches to surf, fish and sunbathe year-round. Neptune Beach is also a popular spot, according to local resident Dana DeVolk.
“It is just north of Jacksonville Beach and much less touristy,” she said.
The Dames Point Bridge, officially named the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge, was built over the St. Johns River in 1989. Source: Wikipedia Commons
While beaches are undoubtedly a huge draw in Jacksonville, locals including Ennis Davis say the city is most-known for the St. Johns River and its network of bridges. The river runs 310 miles through 12 counties, making it Florida’s primary commercial and recreational waterway.
The eight major bridges in Jacksonville not only create an iconic image of the city, but each one plays a crucial role and tells its own story. The John T. Alsop Jr. “Main Street” Bridge is the most memorable, according to Yahoo.com, carrying several thousand commuters across US 1 and US 90 each day.
The John E. Mathews Bridge also serves downtown commuters as well as supports small businesses along University Boulevard. Its impact was felt recently after a ship ran into the bridge, causing a closure that businesses say seriously affected their sales. Fortunately, the bridge reopened 12 days ahead of schedule, according to The Florida Times-Union, and business is picking up.
On the other side of town, the Fuller Warren Bridge has become a hub for Jacksonville’s arts scene. Local resident Asbell says the Riverside Arts Market, housed under the bridge, is one of the best kept secrets about the city.
“I love to shop at the Riverside Arts Market on the weekends for a bustling assortment of street food, arts, crafts, produce and plants,” he said. The market also plays host to live music and street performers.
The Jacksonville real estate market isn’t like others where low inventory and high demand are driving up prices. By contrast, Jacksonville remains an affordable place to live for most home buyers, according to Zillow Director of Economic Research Dr. Svenja Gudell.
“The Jacksonville area holds some real bargains for home shoppers attracted by its warm, sunny climate and proximity to the coast,” she said. “At just $139,500, median home values in the area are far less than the national average of $163,000, and homes remain well below their 2006 peak of more than $200,000, which means buyers can get in while prices are still relatively low.”
Jacksonville real estate agent Sandy Miller agrees.
“[There's] affordable housing with good schools and lots of activities for kids and family,” she said.
A 3-bedroom beach house is available just a half block from Jacksonville Beach. The asking price is $369,000.
And, it’s not just affordable in the city. Owning property on or near the beach is also a real possibility and may make more financial sense than renting, Gudall says.
“Even homes in the typically more expensive seaside areas, including the communities of Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach, are attainable for buyers of relatively modest means, with median values in the $250,000 to $275,000 range,” she explained. “The breakeven horizon, or the point in years at which buying a home is more financially advantageous than renting, is also low at just 2.8 years.”
According to Miller, downtown condos were starting to generate buzz before the housing market downturn, but the beaches continue to attract buyers.
“The beach area is still a big draw, especially now while prices are not at their peak,” she said.
Built in 1909, this Riverside-area home has been preserved to resemble its original Queen Anne-style construction. It’s currently on the market for $525,000.
While Jacksonville isn’t a historical tourism destination, the city does have its share of noteworthy historic neighborhoods, including Riverside and Avondale. Former plantation land, Riverside is where many residents relocated following the Great Fire of 1901. A row of mansions was built along Riverside Avenue, and more modest bungalows were constructed southwest to King Street and beyond, according to the City of Jacksonville’s official website.
“With the influx of building tradesmen who came to the city after the Great Fire, Riverside became a laboratory for aspiring architects and competing residential fashions,” the website says. “Today the neighborhood has the largest variety of architectural styles in Florida.”
Both neighborhoods have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the Riverside Avondale Preservation, a local nonprofit, is committed to protecting their architectural and cultural heritage.
“Hidden away from the highway traveler lies an extraordinary neighborhood that exudes charm and scenery, art and history, just a few blocks from the interstate traffic,” the Preservation’s website says. “In many ways this community embodies what all of Jacksonville once was but no longer is.”
Local resident Sonja Harmon says Riverside and Avondale are the hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods right now in Jacksonville. This isn’t surprising considering their historic charm and proximity to shops, bars and restaurants in the Five Points commercial district.
Looking to move to Jacksonville? Among Riverside homes for sale, the median list price is currently $233,000. The Avondale market is slightly more expensive for buyers, with a median asking price of $277,500.
Growing sports scene
It’s hard to imagine Jacksonville without the Jaguars, but until the mid-1990s, the city didn’t have an NFL team. In 1995, the Jags and the Carolina Panthers debuted as the first NFL expansion teams in nearly 20 years.
Today, fans flock to EverBank Field, the site of the old Gator Bowl Stadium, sporting their teal and black. Others, like local resident Gibson, tailgate at one of Jacksonville’s several urban parks. Other popular game-day spots? World of Beer, Jerry’s Sports Grille and Nippers Beach Grille.
And for golf aficionados, The Players Championship is hosted every spring at Ponte Vedra Beach, about 20 miles from Jacksonville. The renovated course was a big hit this year, according to VisitJacksonville.com, as well as a new clubhouse that’s reportedly twice as big as the White House.
World’s largest outdoor cocktail party
The 2009 University of Georgia (left) and University of Florida (right) student body presidents showing off the “Florida side” of the Okefenokee Oar. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Long before the Jags entered the scene, there was one game — the game — that brought crowds of football fans to town every year. Since 1915, the University of Florida Gators have played the University of Georgia Bulldogs. And with only two exceptions, the game has been held in Jacksonville for the past 80 years, making it one of the few remaining rival games held in neutral territory.
“The Florida-Georgia Football Classic has a strong tradition with deep roots here in Jacksonville,” Mayor Alvin Brown told the City of Jacksonville’s official website in anticipation of this year’s game (Georgia won the Nov. 2 battle, 23-20). “This game draws countless people to the downtown area, showcasing our city as a national destination for big-time sports events. We are proud to host this great rivalry, and we look forward to a great game and an unbeatable fan experience all week long.”
Attracting a sea of tailgaters, the event has come to be known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” The winner takes home the coveted Okefenokee Oar trophy and bragging rights for the year.
Jacksonville may not top the list of Florida’s tourist destinations, but for many this is a selling point. Whether Disney World bound or headed to see the nation’s oldest city, Jacksonville residents are close enough to visit tourist attractions without living in the heart of it all. Orlando is a two-hour drive, and St. Augustine is less than an hour away, making it possible to see the sites and be home by dinner.
If you’re a regular vacationer, Jacksonville is also in close proximity to cruise lines hitting tropical destinations such as the Bahamas.
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