Van Royal’s vision: Green Cove Springs looks to its future while embracing its past

By Don Coble
Posted 6/22/22

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – In between bites of his lunch, former city councilman Van Royal was often distracted by the sights of children running through the fountains across the street at Spring …

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Van Royal’s vision: Green Cove Springs looks to its future while embracing its past


GREEN COVE SPRINGS – In between bites of his lunch, former city councilman Van Royal was often distracted by the sights of children running through the fountains across the street at Spring Park.

“That is beautiful,” he said with a smile. “I’m so proud we got that done.”

The swimming pool at Spring Park opened five years ago and proved to be a big step for the little city. Families fill every poolside chair while children ran and splash during another perfect afternoon.

Progress, he said, doesn’t always require

Royal knows there’s a delicate balance between preserving Green Cove Springs’ historic charm and managing growth. No matter how many bulldozers expand the boundaries of Small Town America into inevitable progress, Royal is one of many who’s championed the city’s easy-going lifestyle. He wants Green Cove Springs’ pace to be measured by foot traffic, not bustling highways.

“You have to have foot traffic. That’s the unique thing about Green Cove Springs,” he said. “It’s the only place in Clay County that has a walkable downtown. You can walk to restaurants. You can walk to the grocery store. You can walk to CVS. You can walk to the food pantry and social services. Everything is here.”

And he wants it to stay that way.

He’s excited about plans to widen the sidewalks in the downtown area, especially on Walnut Street. He envisions quaint cafes with sidewalk seating, along with trendy boutiques and local businesses.

At the same time, Royal knows development is coming. He’s been a real estate developer for decades. His thumbprint is on many of the city’s projects. He insists, however, that progress can be done responsibly.

“We knew development moves south or toward the water, which is why Oakleaf did so well. Oakleaf had a jump start on us,” Royal said. “When Fleming Island was pretty much built out, the next place was going to be Green Cove. This all happened in 2005, ’06, ’07. The market was blowing up.

“We’re here, trying to think about how do you keep the small-town feel with this much development? You look at Saratoga Springs and Governors Park and D.R. Horton (Cross Creek Express). With those three, which are now underway – they certainly have plans for them – are 150% larger than Pace Island and Eagle Harbor combined. Can we save the small-town feel? Growth is inevitable. You can’t stop it. You can plan for it and you can stick to your plans.”

Governors Park is scheduled to be completed in five years – about the same time the First Coast Expressway is completed to connect Interstate 10 with St. Augustine. That massive complex will bring as many as 4,000 new homes south of the city limits. It also will include a town center similar to commerce magnets at St. Johns and Nocatee.

Governors Park will be south of the old Gustafson Farm and west of U.S. 17. And while it’s outside the city limits, Green Cove Springs will reap the benefits without giving up its small-town attitude.

D.R. Horton’s Cross Creek Express north of the city limits is planning for 421 new homes, and Saratoga Springs will bring another 4,300 homes in the next 15 years south of State Road 16 near County Road 315.

There are developments planned for inside the city limits. The Rookery will bring as many as 2,100 new homes at Gustafson Farm. Apartments, townhomes and condominiums already are in the early planning stages.

“When I moved here, in 1987 I’d drive down (U.S. Highway) 17,” Royal said. “It was a two-lane road. No Eagle Harbor. On the other hand, Blanding Boulevard had already been developed. It wasn’t that appealing. It still has traffic problems.

“Governors Park will have the largest town center in Clay County, five years from now, six years from now. It will look like some of these other town centers in St. Johns County and Duval (County). We call it ‘Nocatee-Lite.’ It will still feel like Green Cove Springs. Instead of getting in our cars and driving somewhere else to spend our money, they can stay here and still enjoy the architecture from 100 years ago.”

Term limits forced Royal from the city council dais, but he’s often in the audience at regular meetings and he’s always ready to address the council with comments and concerns. He’s just as focused on development as he is on preserving the city’s way of life.

“Twenty-five years from now, I see Green Cove as a small city where on Saturdays we can have birthday parties at the park; we can go shopping on Walnut Street,” he said. “As big of an impact as the expressway is going to have, actually it’s already affecting us, Reynolds Industrial Park needs to be ready to entertain offers. It can be anything. It could be a large industrial complex. It could be a waterfront with hotels, apartments, condominiums.”

The expressway certainly will affect Green Cove Springs. It will bring thousands of new visitors each day. And with four interchanges within three miles of the city limits, the possibilities are limitless.

So is the commitment to keeping the city’s small-town feel.


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