Saturday, September 18

River Town: When Bad Planning Appears Good

I had high hopes as I entered River Town in St. Johns County, thinking possibly, maybe this was the one. The one master planned community in the region that got things right. Instead, it's a typical suburban neighborhood that adds a few positives to the overwhelming negatives of suburban sprawl.

Let's start with a few good elements. RiverTown seems to have more than one entrance. There may be as many as four at some point. Then again, it's 5,000 acres, or nearly 8 square miles. Or about 1/10th the size of Madison, Wisconsin. Chew on that for a moment: 10 of these mega-neighborhoods with nothing but houses and resort-style amenities would be equal to a diverse college town. Or, more succinctly, River Town is about the same size as the Riverside/Avondale part of Jacksonville. As I began writing this article, I drove through Riverside and realized that RiverTown is a sad attempt to recreate the same magic. The problem is that River Town wants only the convenient or palpable elements of Riverside, the desired effect is immediate, and the place contributes to the geography of nowhere while pretending to be somewhere.

The houses are close together in River Town, so you can pretend you're in an actual town. But it is pretend. While there may be more corners than in a typical suburban neighborhood, there are no corner bars or corner restaurants. No bookshops, music stores, art shops, or microbreweries. Just house after house after "amenities." But the amenities that make a real town are missing, including awful murals, homeless folks, pawn shops, and all the annoyances that are also part of an actual town.

I once discussed mixed-use neighborhoods with a local builder who wrote the idea off as impossible. He claimed you couldn't build the proper infrastructure for even stores within a neighborhood, let alone any other uses beyond corner stores. And yet, that's how old-timey downtowns were built for years, and if people really want to live in some kind of Disneyish version of a bygone era, then they really ought to have the full experience. Rivertown isn't that.

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