Calvin Burney, a longtime transportation and city planner who had a hand in many of Jacksonville’s largest projects — from the expansion of Mayo Clinic to St. Johns Town Center to the interstate beltway circling the quickly growing city — died March 24 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 69.
His wife, Betty Burney, remembers how focused he was on his work that oversaw transportation projects across Northeast Florida.
Mr. Burney kept a notebook with him, she said, as they drove around the booming area with roads long challenged to keep up with growth.
As he took notes, he would often comment on what he saw, Betty Burney said, imitating him: “‘This needs to be changed. That needs to be changed. I told them, they needed to have a level of service A instead of level C. You see what’s happened?’”
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Michael Blaylock, former CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, called Burney “an unsung hero,” someone who was able to plan for decades into the future while navigating complicated federal, state and local requirements for development.
“When I drive around, I can see his fingerprints on Town Center, I can see the whole Gate Parkway, the Butler corridor, the completion of the beltway, Dames Point, the new federal highway system — he had his fingerprints on all that,” Blaylock said.
‘Unsung hero of Jacksonville’
Mr. Burney grew up in North Carolina and attended Fayetteville State University, a historically Black school, before earning a master’s in city planning at Georgia Tech.
He came to Northeast Florida in 1978 to work for the Regional Planning Council, where he took an active role in the development of the Baymeadows area that saw explosive growth during that time. In 1986 he became a planner for the state Department of Transportation. In 1989 Mayor Tommy Hazouri appointed him to the twin roles of chief of transportation for the city and director of the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization.
From 2011 to 2015 he was director of planning for the city during Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration. Before that, he’d started his own consulting firm, Transportation Planning Group Inc., to which he returned after retiring from the city.
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He also enjoyed spending his retirement doting on his two classic autos, a candy-apple red 1966 Ford Mustang and a 1956 Ford truck, both restored and drivable, Betty Burney said.
She’s a former School Board member and chairwoman who met him in 1979 when she was also working as a planner. Her husband had all the characteristics of a good city planner, she said: “It requires a person with strong attention to detail, which he had, and also a vision, to see how things could be. It was applied in everything, even our household.”
He was driven, she said, to turn that vision to balancing the growth and livability of his adopted city: “Even though he was not originally from Jacksonville, he came to love this city, and really wanted to see our city thrive. I’d tease him sometimes that he was more of a Jacksonvillian than I was, and I was born here.”
Brown, who as mayor appointed Mr. Burney to director of city planning, called him a visionary public servant who worked on numerous projects, including the redevelopment of the Brooklyn neighborhood on the edge of downtown.
“He was always thinking about the future, the future of what Jacksonville could be and should be,” Brown said. “That to me is someone who had extraordinary vision and really was committed to public service.”
Blaylock, the former JTA head, noted that development can be a “political minefield” and that planners such as Mr. Burney often have to navigate between developers and politicians eager for growth and the needs of residents to have housing, employment and transportation systems that work.
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“You don’t really want to discourage development, but you want to do it as smartly as you can,” Blaylock said. “I call him the unsung hero of Jacksonville, and not for just being an African-American trailblazer. I’m talking about a guy in a very, very tough position for years who really had a huge impact on our infrastructure in this city — and I also hold in the highest esteem his ability to get things done without selling his soul or compromising his integrity.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Burney is survived by his sons Calvin Jr. (Tashlai) and Craig; grandson Calvin III; brothers Owen Sr. (Rosa) and Terence (Laura) and numerous other relatives. A celebration of his life will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Paul AME Church, 6910 New Kings Road. A viewing is at the church on Friday from 5 to 6:30 p.m.