Duval County Courthouse: How much is too much?

January 30, 2008 64 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Better Jacksonville Plan voters were promised a $190 million courthouse, now Mayor Peyton wants us to pay $400 million. Unfortunately, no one is asking why a courthouse costs this much.

Is spending $400 million necessary?

Ever wonder how other, faster growing counties have dealt with their recent courthouse expansions?  If we take a look at what some of our peers have come up with, that question quickly becomes: Why do we need to spend $400 million for a new complex? There are numerous examples of similar sized projects recently completed for half the cost of ours planned expansion.

Recent Examples:

Mecklenburg County Courthouse - Charlotte, NC

Charlotte's new $148 million courthouse complex opened in 2007.  That price covered the construction costs for the 568,000 square foot courthouse building, containing space for 47 courtrooms, a 1,164 space parking deck and 10,000 square feet of retail. Strangely enough Turner Construction Company (the one involved in our project) was involved in the construction of this one as well. 


 Harris County Civil & Criminal Justice Center - Houston, TX

Houston's solution to their growing courthouse needs centered around creating two separate downtown towers.  The 20 story criminal justice center opened in 2001, at the cost of $95 million.  The 18 story, 660,000 square foot civil justice center opened four years later at the cost of $115.5 million.  The total combined cost for Houston's "Courthouse Square" came out to $210.5 million.


Clark County Regional Justice Center - Las Vegas, NV

This courthouse complex opened its doors in 2004 at the cost of $185 million, which was well above the $120 million budget.  This 18 story building features 700,000 square feet of space on one downtown block.


Calgary Courthouse - Calgary, AB

The Calagry Courthouse complex opened in 2007.  This two block vertical courthouse contains 1.2 million square feet of space featuring a 30 story tower, 90 courtrooms, the preservation of a historic building on-site and an urban park.  The total cost for this massive complex was $280 million.


Jacksonville's Courthouse Options:

Tonight, a special council meeting will be held at 5 p.m. to consider Peyton's Palace, along with a few alternatives.  These options include:

1. Prime Osborn

Local architect Jack Diamond has proposed turning the Prime Osborn into a courthouse for $200 million.  However, this plan is shortsighted because it does not seriously take into account plans to convert the center back into its original purpose, a multi-modal transportation center.

The Prime Osborn as a courthouse only leads to the creation of two additional problems, which would be the need for an alternative convention center complex, as well as a new transportation center location.  Once we add in the cost of those solutions, it will cost taxpayers a lot more than $200 million.


2. Split Courthouse

This option would put a new criminal courthouse on the current Monroe Street moonscape and leave the civil functions on the waterfront Bay Street site.  It has already been proven that this option would result in a duplication of several courthouse functions and fail to position the city to be able to sell the waterfront property for a market rate price. 

This is potentially the worst option because it will eventually cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more in the future, when the Bay Street property becomes obsolete. It also kills the hope of Bay Street becoming a true entertainment district and it leaves one of downtown's most valuable waterfront properties as a parking lot.  All in all, a very shortsighted plan to say the least.



3. Peyton's Palace

This option forces taxpayers to spend a whopping $400 million on a suburban 801,274 square foot plan that would be spread out over a majority of the Monroe Street moonscape.  In Callahan, this might be a viable solution, but in downtown Jacksonville, the previous plan (before Auchter went up in smoke) to construct a midrise facility of at least 15 stories made more sense, especially considering the landslide approval of Amendment One. 

If we can reduce the amount of land the building will consume, the city then has the option of selling excess courthouse land at market rate value for private development.  The selling of these lots, in addition to the Bay Street property, could reduce the overall cost of the courthouse by more than $100 million, enhance the vibrancy of downtown, and put several properties back on the tax rolls.


4. Public/Private Partnership

This option would focus on having a private entity build various courthouse offices as a part of a larger tower that would have additional space for lease to lawyers, legal entities, and perhaps retail opportunities at street level.  In this scenario, the private sector becomes as much a player in the development of the courthouse as the city, reducing the cost exposure to the public. 


The numbers: You make the call

City (year completed) - building size/complex cost = average cost/square foot

Charlotte (2007) - 568,000sf / $148 million = $261/square foot

Houston (2001 - 2005) - 1,390,000sf / $210.5 million = $151/square foot

Las Vegas (2004) - 700,000sf / $185 million = $264/square foot

Calgary (2007) - 1,200,000sf / $280 million = $233/square foot

Jacksonville (n/a) - 801,274sf / $272 million** = $340/square foot

** - this is the estimated cost of the building only and does not include the cost of land or already completed parking garage.


Metro Jacksonville's Position

With the Public/Private option nearby delayed projects like 323 Duval would become feasible again.


From evaluating the cost and size of similar projects recently constructed in areas with a larger population, it is quite apparent that there are ways to get our courthouse built without taxpayers shelling out $400 million. 

The first step to lowering costs would be to reduce the amount of land area this complex consumes.  The second step would be to kill the idea that this structure should mimic the way grand courthouses were designed 100 years ago.  We had a grand historic courthouse and we tore it down for a parking lot off Forysth Street. Now we are realizing that we can not rebuild these once grand structures. We must strip the bells & whistles and build an economical structure that efficiently serves its purpose.

Combining a vertical and economically designed building along with incorporating the public/private option would be best in reducing the cost of the courthouse, as well as instantly jump starting private market rate development in a section of the downtown core that desperately need it.