Peyton's Struggles: Building Yesterday's City

January 12, 2009 32 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A guest editorial written by Milt Hayes, Jr., a local urban planner, calling for a second look at the purposes of the Better Jacksonville Plan.

Building Yesterday’s City – Rethinking The Purposes of the Better Jacksonville Plan

The possibility of a vibrant compact downtown continues to diminish under the leadership of an administration that seems out of touch, when it comes to urban planning.

The Better Jacksonville Plan, which was supposed to have helped place this community among the first tier of American cities, is rapidly becoming an impediment to our very survival as a community.  Now that funding shortfalls apparently have made it impossible to carry out two of the basic mandates of the original plan – making major roadway improvements to Jacksonville’s most traveled thoroughfares and building a functional and cost effective new county courthouse – Mayor Peyton has instead chosen to call for a new round of taxation and to fund the courthouse and extend the roadway projects into the indefinite future.  More recently, the Mayor has sought to couch all of this in the guise of public works projects to stimulate the local economy, linking them to President-elect Obama’s proposed economic recovery program.

While an infrastructure-based economic stimulus plan has much to recommend it and is needed here in Northeast Florida because so much of our existing economy is predicated on new construction, the more fundamental question is what kind of infrastructure we should be putting in place, and what vision of a future Jacksonville we expect it to facilitate.  While one may be justifiably concerned about this administration’s ineptness with respect to executing these last major elements of the Better Jacksonville Plan, the real danger is that City Hall will continue to promote projects that may be functionally obsolete even before they are built.  Indeed, if we were to proceed in the direction that the Mayor has proposed, we run the very real risk of building not only a series of vastly expensive white elephants but forestalling any chance of making better choices for the future.

In the sections below, we will briefly examine the two major projects that the Mayor has highlighted and offer some suggestions about adopting a better planning approach.



Coming to Terms with the Real Purposes of a New County Courthouse

Questions still remain as to how the new courthouse will ultimately fit into the surrounding urban landscape.  Unfortunately, city hall continues to ignore this important issue.


For anyone who has closely followed this administration’s attempts to build a new Duval County Courthouse, it is hard to imagine a more inept and incompetent approach to what ought to have been a relatively straightforward task.  Plagued from its inception by a lack of agreement on what kind of facility was actually needed and serious conflicts of interest among its intended users, this lack of consensus was fatally compounded by a rigged design competition.  Passing over the far more rational and affordable design put forward by a local firm, the Mayor’s Office instead opted for a grandiose architectural pipe dream that – aside from memorializing the outsized egos of those involved – seemed to offer endless opportunities for cronyism, cost overruns, and sweetheart construction deals.

Later, when it became apparent that the Cannon design proposal was financially indefensible even in terms of Jacksonville’s traditionally approving stance toward looting the public treasury, the original consultant team was sent packing and we were left with the present, very expensive hole in the middle of Jacksonville’s downtown.  Since then, there has been a far more open and productive discussion about the real needs of the criminal justice system for such a facility, and the Peytonistas (acting under increasing public pressure) have tried to recast the courthouse in a number of different, and marginally more cost effective, modes.  Yet, many of the most fundamental issues with respect to building a courthouse remain unresolved.

From an overall planning perspective, the most important question that ought to be asked – if it is accepted that new central courthouse facility of this type should indeed be built downtown, and that such an expenditure can be justified in the current climate of increasingly severe fiscal restraints – is how such a major facility will affect the city’s long-standing efforts to revivify the core city.  How, for example, will the new county courthouse modify existing downtown circulation patterns, and what kind of ancillary development is expected to occur on its periphery?  Most important, will this landmark facility serve as the catalyst for creating a new, better-realized concept of Jacksonville’s core city, or will it be just another discordant element in our presently disconnected and often dysfunctional urban landscape?

Given the spectacular history of failed planning in adjacent LaVilla, the question of how a new courthouse will further Jacksonville’s urban design objectives (if, indeed, it has any) is of tremendous importance to what kind of city Jacksonville will become in the future.  Sadly, neither the Mayor’s Office (in practice, JEDC appears to speak for the Peyton Administration in this respect) nor the City Council seems to have the slightest interest in such questions.  Here in Jacksonville, which, it is said, once aspired to become a first tier American city, we seem perfectly content to spend what may become half a billion dollars on a project without any conception of how it may or not affect the overall development of this community’s downtown district or advance the current state of urban design.  Yet, in this community, it is absolutely – and appallingly – true that no one currently in power or authority seems to know or care about such things.  

When it has been suggested (again, to both the Mayor’s Office and to members of the City Council) that even a tiny portion of the funding for the proposed courthouse be devoted for such urban design studies, one of the authors has been told that such a thing would not be possible because “there is no money for it.Ԡ Again, it is proposed that Jacksonville spend upwards of half a billion dollars for construction of a courthouse (while it does not have enough money, we are told, for promised roadway improvements) but not a penny can be found for doing the most basic sort of planning and urban design studies.  If this is not absolute, utter insanity, we do not know what this term means, yet, this what is presently being presented to the local citizenry as “responsible” government. 

Building More Highways to Nowhere

Robbing Peter to pay Paul: Mayor Peyton's economic stimulus road plan threatens to indefinitely delay local mass transit improvements and fuel the continued development of sprawl.

If the ongoing courthouse debacle doesn’t sufficiently illustrate Jacksonville’s troublesome inability to intelligently plan for its future, the present funding meltdown for the Better Jacksonville Plan’s roadway improvements ought to serve as a wake up call for even the most sanguine supporters of the current status quo.  Indeed, this very crisis may present a golden opportunity to critically reexamine the premises under which such proposals were originally made.

If, for example, we still envision a future in which unlimited suburban growth will pick up form where it left off once the present real estate market has “corrected” itself, then the Mayor’s proposed stretch out of roadway construction might make some kind of conceptual sense.  On the other hand, if – as now seems probable – we are looking at something more like the end of Jim Kunstler’s happy motoring paradigm in which cheap imported energy has enabled a nation of long distance automobile commuting and ever expanding suburban sprawl, it may be time to rethink just what Jacksonville and Northeast Florida might look like in the future.  Moreover, if peak oil and the end of the cheap energy bubble economy that it seems to have engendered actually mean anything at all, we may soon be looking at a situation that is truly different from anything that we have ever seen before.

In light of changing energy supplies and falling highway revenues, for example, we might – if we are prescient enough – rethink our options with respect to building light rail lines that connect our existing population centers as opposed to funding such things as the horrendously expensive outer beltway through Clay and St. Johns Counties whose exurban hinterland may, now, never materialize.  Similarly, we should begin to address the issue of what kind of new construction – and where – we should be planning for in the future.  The city’s existing Town Center initiative, with its focus on transit-oriented development and creating more walkable neighborhoods, offers the germ of an idea that may hold the key to restructuring the way that we think about how our community functions.  

The problem remains, however, that even within the confines of the present, well-understood paradigm of unlimited suburban growth, the current administration (and the local, nominally “Republican” political machine that steadfastly supports it) is “stuck on stupid” to such an extent that it can’t even figure out how to keep on doing more of the same, questionably useful things without demanding still more taxes.  

But what happens, as seems more and more likely, when “more of the same” no longer works?  What will we do, then? 
Editorial by Milt Hays, Jr., MS in Urban Planning