Looking for a Bite on Saturday Night: Town Center Blight Leaves Bitter Taste

Posted by on Feb 15, 2013 in Dining, Jacksonville, Life | 4 Comments

Is it just me, or has the St. Johns Town Center become a super-sized victim of its own success?

I don’t want to go anymore. 

I can’t explain it from a physiological standpoint, but lately I get a case of the nerves just thinking about the drive to the shopping behemoth. Not to even get into the obligatory parking lot stalking posture, the persistent fear of being mowed down by smartphone-wielding, texting teenie-boppers once I’m out of the car, the roving bands of probably-not consumers crowding out my Genius Bar real estate at the Apple Store, and those glossy ads hiding in the menus at the Cheesecake Factory (c’mon … ads in a menu?).

Amazon, even the threatened version that collects sales tax, has never looked so good.

Since its opening in 2005, Town Center’s been the place to be … to be seen, to sip, and to be sold to, in dense proportions never before seen on the First Coast. It’s a retailer’s nirvana. Is there any other reason Nordstrom would buy into the scene for 2014?

Still, the boiling pot of profit at J. Turner Butler Boulevard and Interstate 295 has had its run of novelty, cachet and ego-boosting, dopamine-brimming delights for this consumer. After eight years, I’ve had enough.

Time for a time-out, Town Center.

Last Saturday night was my breaking point. My mother and I celebrate our birthdays within three days of each other. Thus it’s Magee Family Tradition to share a weekend birthday meal together, in either Orlando or Jacksonville. So Amie and I joined my parents, sister and nephew for a mission to the Town Center after dark Saturday, in search of an establishment that would accommodate us the same day.

At this point, I should say my parents joined me on a leap of faith. There’s no better way to put it. In their limited run-ins with the SJTC, they get scared. They tried to talk me out of it, in fact. And for being from a town synonymous with neon and plastic blight (Orlando), that says a lot.

But I was giving T.C. the benefit of the doubt. BJ’s Brewhouse was the site of my birthday dinner the evening before, and Ovinte (a refreshingly local socializing-type place in the belly of the beast) was the backdrop for the hip after-party. Surely there’d be good things left in my third trip to the well in one weekend.

That well ran dry, what with two-hour long droughts on pagers throughout the kingdom – from Bahama Breeze (actually 90 minutes there) to Brio and Ted’s Montana Grill. It didn’t help that each time the young woman on the other end sounded like she was reading from a corporate script that required a chipper tone and a concealing smile as she read it. “Why yes, Mr. Magee, you should consider it a blessing to spend two full hours contemplating the moment you can join us at table. Until then, enjoy a few $12 cocktails at our well-stocked bar, and you’ll soon forget why you are probably so pissed off at [insert restaurant name here].” Or words to that effect.

Here’s another all-too-common issue with the crush of smartphone-wielding humanity at the T.C. When I attempted to Yelp alternatives outside of the vortex (otherwise known as the 32246 ZIP code), my iPhone lost its signal. Makes me wonder if there’s some intelligent technology that blocks your attempts to escape the T.C.’s gravitational pull once it senses your desire to leave its orbit.

Once my 4G returned, we settled on La Nopalera on Atlantic Blvd., near Regency Square. Strangely, a greasy spoon in the thick of strip clubs and spinner retailers was welcomingly genuine, and they got us seated within 10 minutes. And you know how La Nop rolls … chips and salsa at your table in 30 seconds!

A uniquely Jacksonville institution with affordable eats and less-than-daring décor? Where do I sign up?

I do have love for the T.C., however. Don’t read me wrong. It’s good at heart. Good for Jacksonville. Good for the economy, real estate values, jobs and for not having to burn precious gas money to trip to Orlando or Atlanta for A-list retail (excepting Crate and Barrel and IKEA, of course). But like all good things, T.C. needs to learn from its miscues to stay the course of awesomeness, injecting itself with regular refreshes so it survives the next retail trend (Regency Square … need I say more?).

Here are a few unsolicited morsels of advice:

  • Redo the roads. The main choke point into the T.C. – Gate Parkway and Town Center Parkway, is a jumbled mess of band-aids and pot holes begging for a fix. If ever there was an intersection appropriate for an interchange, do a study (like state Department of Transportation types love to do) and get it on the budget. Do whatever’s necessary to get people in and out of the area faster.
  • Save the pedestrian. There are plenty of sidewalk-challenged rights of way. Look for the gaps and lay some concrete where it’s needed most. Create a pedestrian/bike-friendly path and block vehicular traffic. Or do the “unthinkable” and remove parking and traffic from some of the main drags and create walker-friendly promenades. At the very least, declare key times of the year—especially holiday times—car-free holidays for those arteries.
  • Parking decks! Surface lots are all the rage in the River City. Why? Because they’re cheap. Put up the buckage, Simon, and build some perimeter decks, launch a shuttle service and fill in some of that asphalt with green space. Invite food trucks to the fray (and make them pay their fair share to be there so the brick-and-mortar types don’t scream bloody murder). People will complain, sure they will, but do you really think that will keep them away?
  • Encourage & incentivize locally based business. Ovinte is a great first step, and Tom Gray’s venture will be fantastic if Bistro Aix is a worthy measuring stick (and it is). Offer local entrepreneurs incentives to open shop here, and give us some local flavor in our diet of chains.
  • Enforce rush-hour reservation hours. Now I know Jacksonville is world-famous for walking up to just about everything, but for us overprogrammed planners it’s nutty. Here’s my fix: Make those fancy sit-down restaurants (including … dare I dream … a new La Nopalera!) enforce reservations during key evening and weekend times, so people have to call in and show up. If they’re not there within 10 minutes of the reservation (like the Apple Store Geniuses require), give up the reservation to a brave walk-up. And just to keep things fair, exempt some of the fast-casual restaurants from the rule (Qdoba, Panera, Crispers, etc.) so you walker-uppers have options.
  • Party bus for the partiers. Surely there’s a brave bus company that sees dollar signs in those younger types who want to hit up the scene and who live at the beaches, Southside/UNF, Riverside/Avondale and even my stomping grounds (Mandarin). Run a circuit with regular drop-off and pick-up privileges and remove all of their pesky autos … and some potential DUIs … from the mix.
  • Got scenic vistas? The patio scene at Brio is pretty awesome … until you look out and realize that’s Big Island Drive or a parking lot, not the rolling hills of Tuscany. Can’t we look out of whatever shop or restaurant we’re at and lose ourselves in water or green space, instead of traffic lights and booming stereos? Aesthetics still do count for something. I realize this is likely a master-plan failure, but isn’t there a phase or two left to get it right?

I haven’t given up on you, Town Center. Don’t give up on me and forget how awesome you once were. You’re 8 years old. Learn your lessons and clean up your act, or I don’t want to be around to see you when you hit puberty.

What suggestions would you add to my list? I’d love to hear from you.




  1. Roxie
    February 15, 2013

    Hilarious. Yet, so true. I told Jordan last night if he took me to SJTC on Valentine’s Day it might be his last. It’s just too much. I’d rather drive to St. Augustine – at least I get a scenic view then.

    • Jay Magee
      February 15, 2013

      So true. I got Carrabba’s Carside for Amie on V-Day and surprised her at home with dinner on the table, wine and (yes, the blasphemy) Sweet By Holly gluten-free cupcakes for dessert. So much better than fighting it out for reservations somewhere. Love St. Augustine for anything, especially food.

  2. Ashley Feit
    February 15, 2013

    Oh, how I don’t miss the Town Center, Jay! (BTW, happy belated Birthday!) When we made the move across the river, we were so excited about all the new stuff coming to the Town Center. We’d been trapped and deprived of any good places living in Clay County. As the TC started out and grew, we were there. We went to the Grape, Cheesecake Factory, MiMis, etc. We were so excited when CPK and Bahama Breeze joined the TC, but we were noticing it was increasingly hard to park or to get in anywhere. We found ourselves trying to find off peak times with no luck (2-hr wait on a Sunday afternoon) and finally stopped going all together.

    It just wasn’t planned well for parking and getting around and I just don’t understand why restaurants can’t do call aheads or reservations anymore? I go out to eat when I’m hungry, not 2 hours before I’m hungry. We have always been big on supporting local places, but sometimes you want to go somewhere for a favorite dish. Unfortunately, no favorite dish is worth it, if you have to fight for a parking spot and then wait 1-2 hours.

    We have only just begun to try all the local restaurants here in Cary/Raleigh, and then of course we have Chapel Hill and Durham very close by as well. I have a list a mile long of places to try.

    Maybe it’s just time for you to move to a new city, Jay!

    • Jay Magee
      February 16, 2013

      I’m with you, Ashley. Years ago the Town Center had so much promise as a shopping destination alone, before the dining and the nightlife came in and crowded out the rest of us. There are some sacred cows there, I will admit (Total Wine, Seasons 52, Costco, Sweet by Holly, Apple Store come to mind) but I’m going out of my way to find alternatives to going there. I toyed with giving up Town Center for Lent, but I already broke that one with Valentine’s Day (Sweet by Holly). I hope they fix things before it’s too late.