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Thinking Anew about Monroe Street and the Courthouse

This Presidents' Day, I have been thinking about the issue of Monroe Street and the new Duval County Courthouse and meditating on the sentiments expressed in Abraham Lincoln's address to Congress in 1862. As President Lincoln so aptly said, "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." (emphasis added) With respect to the interrelated problems of Monroe Street and the new courthouse, we are, at the most basic level, being called upon to completely rethink many of the original design objectives of the River City Renaissance plan, if not some elements of the existing plan for the Downtown itself. This is in no way a bad thing, but rather an opportunity to come to a better consensus about what our goals and objectives for Jacksonville's urban core really are, and how we might better achieve them.

Published February 24, 2011 in Opinion      22 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


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Monroe Street and Competing Visions about the Downtown


Under the River City Renaissance Redevelopment Plan, the area between Monroe and Adams Streets would have been transformed into surface parking and green space, with the two streets serving as automobile arterials for moving automobile traffic to and from I-95.

As many people are aware, a major reason that is cited for keeping Monroe Street open to automobile traffic stems from the earlier vision that it should become a "grand entrance/landscaped boulevard" into the Downtown.  The origin of this concept dates back to the River City Renaissance Redevelopment Plan for LaVilla-Brooklyn (published by the Jacksonville Downtown Development Authority in November 1994), although it may have had its supporters before this.

As envisioned in this study, Monroe and Adams Streets would form a one-way pair (as was subsequently done) with a linear park/parking area in between them, but this part of the plan was not done.  See the original document for details.  Given the original intent of the River City plan to "open up" the area to both pedestrian and automobile traffic, a grand urban boulevard with a landscaped central core did make some conceptual sense.  Unfortunately -- and very typical of many of Jacksonville's past attempts at successfully implementing such planning initiatives -- the street pair was put in place, but very little else was done to remake Lavilla into a workable urban environment*.

*Many people, like myself, have been extremely critical of the way in which the City of Jacksonville handled the "redevelopment" of LaVilla."  As I have written in other venues, the city seemed far more interested in "Negro removal" -- the effective destruction of the remnants of an historic and once vibrant black community so as to lessen "visual blight" -- than it did in adhering to any grand vision of "improving" this part of the downtown.  The needless destruction of Lavilla is, in itself, is one of the greatest tragedies in the post war history of Jacksonville.

Almost a decade later, as part of the constellation of projects envisioned by Mayor John Delaney's proposed Better Jacksonville Plan, it was suggested that a new courthouse might be built on the "underutilized" land in Lavilla.  The saga of the incredible expanding (or, some would say, metastasizing) courthouse -- from the original, fatally flawed design competition to its vastly inflated final price tag -- is a story probably worthy of a book, but the upshot of its metamorphosis was that it would now take up the better part of several city blocks, including the path of Monroe Street.

Once the new low-rise design (as opposed to the vertical design of the adjoining new Federal Courthouse), was selected and an "acceptable" budget compromise was finally reached, it was clear that we would be dealing with a courthouse "super block."  Although it was apparent to a number of people that such a new superblock would further destroy what was left of the western downtown's original grid pattern (indeed, much of the grid had already been irrevocably broken in other parts of LaVilla), none of the advocates of the new courthouse design seemed to have had any knowledge of -- or, apparently, any particular concern for -- the original objectives of the Renaissance Plan.  Yet, once the plan for the new courthouse super block was accepted, there was no practical way to accomplish both objectives at the same time, and the "courthouse square" concept**, as I like to call it, won the day.

**The concept of the central courthouse square is deeply rooted in traditional American town planning, and functional examples can be found in smaller towns throughout the country, including Florida.  One of the most picturesque examples is in Monticello, Florida.  Taking our cues from both history and the principles of good design, see the remarks by Mr. Davis, et al., as to how we should address this unique opportunity.

Yet, ironically enough, the new proposals for Monroe Street and the courthouse actually present a unique opportunity to achieve two important and historic goals for Jacksonville's Downtown that an "open" Monroe Street was originally supposed to accomplish -- but didn't.  


Revisiting the Linear Park Concept



Hearkening back to Ted Pappas' original concept for a linear park system that would traverse Downtown Jacksonville and some of the more specific design elements contained in the Renaissance plan, it is now an opportune time to reconsider the real merit of such a proposal.  With other transit options thrown into the mix (such as the suggested bike paths and designated bus/trolley ways, for example) in terms of linkage and mobility, creating such a system will be one of the keys to making the downtown really "work" as a pedestrian -- and small business friendly -- people space.      

Looking at some of the proposals that have already been made on this site for transforming the area between the new courthouse square and Hemming Plaza, it is evident that most of the "pieces" of such a several block-long linear project are either already in place -- or easily enough put into place -- to transform this small area into a rather spectacular urban space!  



Image by discussion board member Dougskiles

Note the central location of the skyway express station and the existing City Hall / Arts / Library complex and think of this as the eastern anchor of this larger continuous pedestrian/green space.  This is is exactly the kind of "connectivity" that everyone keeps advocating, and here is our best chance to really show the world what we can accomplish along these lines in River City.  Again, the irony is that going forward with this concept for Monroe Street will -- rather than obviating his original insight -- at last vindicate Ted's prescient vision of what a linear park can do to transform and revitalize this area.


Keeping the Original Promise of LaVilla



A second, appropriately ironic result of closing Monroe Street is that it can transform our thinking (per Lincoln's good advice) about how to deal with all of the broken promises that were made in terms of "reviving" this historic district.  Now that the concept of Monroe Street as a "grand entrance" to Jacksonville has been shelved (and with a vibrant urban space created on its eastern boundary), we can once again return to the more salient question of how Monroe Street might function as an effective "entrance" to a revitalized LaVilla.  From this perspective, LaVilla becomes -- as it should have been from the very start -- not so much a "problem" to be solved (how to get upscale people into the downtown without having to look at "unsightly" historic buildings and the people who lived there) but an opportunity to be reborn as the great urban district that it could have been.

Again, many of the physical elements for such a transformation remain in place, as is the will of those who have kept alive the original, organic vision of a restored historic community in this area.  The problem, once again, is to seek out a better, design-based understanding of what steps need to be taken to make this happen.  Working with neighborhood groups, the black business community, JEDC, and the city's Planning Department, it is time to take a second look at the existing "plan" for LaVilla and to put in place something that is far more sensitive to the original good intentions -- and to the promises that were made -- in the Renaissance plan.

For all of these reasons, it is time to "think anew" about Monroe Street, the courthouse, and the downtown.  Fortunately, there seems to be a sort of emerging consensus -- perhaps helped along by the upcoming city elections -- that this is what we should be doing, even if the local Powers That Be haven't always been on quite the same page that we are with this.  With new elected leadership soon to take office, we ought to be doing everything that we can to advocate and to lobby for such an agenda.  Working together with enlightened, design conscious city officials and organizations, there is no limit to what we might accomplish.

Article by Milt Hays, Jr.







22 Comments

dougskiles

February 24, 2011, 08:57:17 AM
Milt, I am honored that you used my sketch in your article.

You bring up a great point about master planning.  As I have talked to various people around town, the common frustration is that we are often creating great vision/master plans but nothing materializes.  I used to be of the opinion that for once, we need to just follow the plan.  I have heard others lament this as well.  However, as I have investigated more into this and observed the pockets of town that are experiencing a resurgance, it has become evident to me that the problem may not be with the implementation, but with the original plan itself.

  • Perhaps our plans have been too restrictive and not permitted organic growth to occur.
  • The plans may have been so grand that we could never bite it off in one chunk and so we never took the first step.
  • The plans may have not allowed the market to determine what was going to be most successful at any given time.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the plans were made under the false assumption that the generation making the plans knew what was going to be best for the future generations.

I am currently involved in a master planning effort in San Marco and am working hard to make sure we don't repeat these mistakes.  For master plans to work, the vision needs to be clear and well-communicated, but the implementation needs to be flexible enough to allow the market to work its magic.  It is not the planners who make the plans successful, it is the businesses and residents who decide to live and work there.

And we always need to be asking ourselves if we are on the right track.  Too many times we make decisions based on previous decisions that would possibly have been made differently had we known then, what we know today.

Non-RedNeck Westsider

February 24, 2011, 09:00:07 AM
I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but with Monroe St. being such a "Grand Entrance" and all, why doesn't it have access from 95 southbound?  Just sayin'.

stephendare

February 24, 2011, 09:13:30 AM
Milt Great essay.

And thank you for taking the high road on trying to conciliate the plans of Ted Pappas with the new situation of the courthouse.  Ted is a very distinguished, intelligent and idealistic man, and the city has been enlightened and blessed with many of his ideas and his viewpoints.

In this case, I think he is wrong, and is the victim of several decades of a redevelopment culture that has evolved into something which the older versions make impossible when fully implemented.

Too much emphasis on aesthetics and a nearly universal casual disregard for the density of businesses and the self organizing forces of the market within a commercial district destroyed the fabric of our own downtown to the point that it has caused a historic failure of our central city.

No other city in America has suffered such a decline without a natural disaster, a fire, or (in the case of General Sherman)both having caused it.

I think we do need to totally rethink policies which led to the creation of a grand entrance corridor into LaVilla and the simultaneous destruction of the LaVilla neighborhood.  Including the first few city blocks of monroe from I-95 that Ted purchased, demolished and developed himself after guiding the Renaissance design groups which called for that Grand Entrance.

It is with extreme jaundice that one must view the reality:  After arguing for a "Grand Entrance into La Villa", the money was outlayed and guaranteed for this project.

Now there is a small minority raising hell over the destruction of the street grid of the neighborhood.

Where was this hell raising when the neighborhood itself was being bulldozed?

In fact I rather think that the blockage of Monroe will be one of the best things that happens to LaVilla, since thats what many people in the conversation are pretending to care about.

A busy through way from the interstate to the Hart Bridge won't contribute much to the surrounding neighborhood.  But an exit off the Interstate that forces cars to actually turn into the LaVilla neighborhood?......Do the upsides of this really need to be explained?

iloveionia

February 24, 2011, 10:29:55 PM
Excellent article.

Questions:
Currently there is an exit off I95 to Monore that would drop in front of the courthouse?  And Monroe Street is where LaVilla used to be?
The current plan is to close Monroe and it's I95 exit?
LaVilla was demolished to build this big honking fugly courthouse?
When was LaVilla demolished?

Thanks for the clarification.
 
Also, any pros/cons to Monroe Street would be appreciated.
I would like to understand better.

simms3

February 25, 2011, 07:01:32 AM
I enjoyed the essay quite a bit.  Thanks!

Linear parks can work great when there is a good master plan and enough growth happening whereby the park doesn't subsequently cut off the two sides of an area and create a wasteland.  I think a new master plan for LaVilla needs to be created and perhaps this linear park incorporated, but development needs to be spurred in that area with incentives in the form of tax increment financing (which surprisingly is almost non-existent in Jacksonville, a city that needs it and can benefit from it more than any other).

The park and developments on either side should be constructed simultaneously.  A quick look through history indicates that linear parks came about in master plans where growth was happening fast and the park and surrounding mixed-use/higher density (and in a couple case RSFHs) simultaneously.  I'm thinking of examples in Boston, Atlanta, New York, all over CA, Dallas, etc.

S Dallas


San MAteo, CA


Atlanta


Atlanta

dougskiles

February 25, 2011, 07:31:47 AM
development needs to be spurred in that area with incentives in the form of tax increment financing (which surprisingly is almost non-existent in Jacksonville, a city that needs it and can benefit from it more than any other).

I hear about tif's often, but don't know exactly how they work.  Would you mind someday posting some detailed information and examples?  It seems like this is going to be a great avenue for some of the infrastructure projects we are trying to start.

sheclown

March 01, 2011, 08:43:07 PM
@ Nicole:

LaVilla was demolished for social reasons.  Sound familiar?  

Quote
The area north of Duval Street was one of Florida’s first black urban  neighborhoods. In the 1920s Ashley Street became the “Great Black Way”. A street  lined with entertainment establishments that played host to famed jazz & blues  greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday. Former  residents of LaVilla include Ray Charles and James Weldon Johnson

Quote
Like many historic neighborhoods, for various reasons LaVilla fell on hard  times. However, unlike Springfield, it wasn’t given a chance to revitalize  itself. In the early 1990s the city demolished most structures along with the  heart and soul of Florida’s first African-American city with an ill-fated urban  renewal project that has resulted in the empty lots and non-pedestrian friendly  stucco office structures that exist today.


more info:

http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2006-aug-lavilla-jacksonvilles-first-incorporated-suburb

The loss of LaVilla is immeasurable, criminal.

Quote
LaVilla is a primarily African-American neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida, that was considered "the mecca for African American culture and heritage" in Florida

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaVilla

brainstormer

March 01, 2011, 11:01:16 PM
Simms, I love it!  The plan for Monroe to be a straight shot from 95 to the Hart Expressway has already been killed.  Imagine a beautiful, lush green, winding park similar to your photos linking the Prime Osborn (converted to Jacksonville Terminal of course) to Hemming Plaza.  Set up TIF along the edges, make the streets curved in this area, ditch BRT and watch the revival of LaVilla.  What a grand entrance this could be to our city!  One of the graphic guys on here should draw this up.  We need new thinking in our downtown revival.

ricker

June 30, 2011, 02:09:27 AM
Think I heard correctly?
I caught the tail end of a blurb on NPR.
Council voted to keep Monroe Street OPEN!?

What does this mean for the hope of a grand court yard?

thelakelander

June 30, 2011, 06:53:15 AM
It means we'll have a grand courtyard split by a one-way arterial street or a large lifeless two block irregular median between two one-way streets.

wsansewjs

June 30, 2011, 08:11:44 AM
Quote
Like many historic neighborhoods, for various reasons LaVilla fell on hard  times. However, unlike Springfield, it wasn’t given a chance to revitalize  itself. In the early 1990s the city demolished most structures along with the  heart and soul of Florida’s first African-American city with an ill-fated urban  renewal project that has resulted in the empty lots and non-pedestrian friendly  stucco office structures that exist today.


Ring ring! DANGER AHEAD, SPRINGFIELD DANGER!

-Josh

Ocklawaha

June 30, 2011, 10:50:40 AM
'Hello, room service? Send up a room, and if you can't spare a room, send up a hall, or a complete building'
Groucho

Ever wonder why the stop lights in Green Cove Springs are all set on timers so that whatever hour and whatever direction one is traveling you'll have to stop.  TRUTH! Making people stop and turn their vehicles will help small business not harm it.


OCKLAWAHA

Dashing Dan

June 30, 2011, 02:11:24 PM
Back in the Seventies, a lot of downtown streets across the country were re-designated for use by pedestrians only.  I'm not saying this would be a good idea for Monroe Street, but it wouldn't be as bad as rebuilding it for cars to use.

Another idea would be to rename the existing pieces of Broad Adams and Pearl Streets that go around the south side of the new courthouse, so that you could go all the way across downtown on "Monroe Street,"  without laying down any new asphalt.

Tacachale

June 30, 2011, 02:14:25 PM
This is unfortunate, but it's far from the worst thing that's been done downtown.

thelakelander

June 30, 2011, 02:21:08 PM
Building that proposed curved stretch of Monroe Street as a multiuse path for cyclist and pedestrians would not be a bad idea.  By the same token, restripping an existing lane of Monroe all the way through downtown for bicycle use wouldn't be too bad either.  Unfortunately, we've reached the point where we don't believe we can "maintain a grid" by not fully accommodating automobile movement at the expense of other modes of mobility.

thelakelander

June 30, 2011, 02:24:08 PM
This is unfortunate, but it's far from the worst thing that's been done downtown.

It's actually very critical to the future of that section of downtown how this space ultimately plays out.  Even if a road is built, it won't be a full block wide.  Thus, there is still going to be some sort of public plaza/green space (KBJ has the contract and it's already in design from what I've heard).  We just have to make sure its context sensitive and usable for the surrounding area.

fieldafm

June 30, 2011, 03:15:00 PM
Quote
It's actually very critical to the future of that section of downtown how this space ultimately plays out.

On the contrary, I think it is devastating to the area around the courthouse.. which is pretty much a blank slate now that all of the surrounding buildings have been destroyed.

The promise of creating a breathable, sustainable fabric of economic promise for potential surrounding small business owners(of which the city could be potential landlords to as this road will sit at the front door of potential retail parcels at the city-owned courthouse parking garage) is forever soiled with the rebuilding of the road.  You can thank Stephen for that description.

It is the final 'screw you' to Jacksonville from the outgoing Council... the worst sitting City Council in my lifetime.  Thank you Michael Corrigan, enjoy fattening up your pension on the taxpayer's dime.

The best thing Alvin Brown can do is to veto this legislation tomorrow.

Quote
restripping an existing lane of Monroe all the way through downtown for bicycle use wouldn't be too bad either.

Agreed, doing this would connect a bicycle pathway to the already funded multi-use path along Hogans Creek, with careful planning this could also connect to the S Line rails to trail bike path.  This loop would connect Durkeeville, Springfield, the Cathedral District and Sports District to the Riverwalk and straight through the heart of downtown. 

Why is it also so bad to extend the tree canopy from Hemming Plaza to a new public plaza at the courthouse?  This would give downtown TWO pedestrian centric arteries(Monroe and Laura). 

This abomination of a road destroys such promise.   

jcjohnpaint

June 30, 2011, 03:58:11 PM
and I know we will also pay for the street to be closed when somebody/s gets hit or there is another safety issue.  Pay to have it reopened and pay to have it closed.  This/ along with the TC is a disaster waiting to happen and we will pay for it.

fieldafm

June 30, 2011, 04:34:44 PM
Not only in regards to paying for it in the future... how are we going to pay for it now???

This is an unfunded, unecessary, unsafe road.  Period.

In a city facing a $60 million dollar budget shortfall next year(even more the year after next)... what library are we going to close to build an uneeded road?  What after school learning problem are you going to cut?  What taxpayer are you going to screw to build this?  Ask yourself what program are you going to cancel to build a road that endangers pedestrians and contributes to an unfriendly small business environment downtown?  Really, stand in the mirror and ask yourself that.  See how you look when you say it out loud.  Pretty silly sounding isn't it?

Better yet, stand on Monroe b/w 95 and the courthouse for half a day and count the cars coming down this street(better yet, cars that aren't coming in and out of Ted Pappas' building, which is half the traffic)  It's entertaining btw b/c motorists have an extremely confused look on their face when they realize a Roman colliseum was built in the middle of the road they are traveling down. 

If you can count more than 20 cars, I will pay for your half day away from work.  Now think about that traffic count and divide that by the cost of the road rebuilding project(remember you can't take money away from the already FUNDED public art money dedicated to the public plaza).

I think you'll find you will come up with a cost per motorist number that simply doesn't make fiscal sense.  From a motorist per dollar perspective, it would be more beneficial to widen a cul-de-sac road at Jax Golf and Country Club.  At least more cars would travel on that road and they have the added benefit of having speed bumps to encourage motorists not to run over kids playing in one's front yard.

Ocklawaha

June 30, 2011, 08:58:00 PM
Go ahead and abandon the park plan to a massive street, then lets close Adams and build the park anyway... across the street from the courthouse. Note too that it would create a one sided pedestrian mall in front of the law offices that front Adams today.l

OCKLAWAHA

ricker

August 02, 2011, 11:34:17 PM
so who else here thinks that more downtown streets should return to serving two-way traffic, before any reconstruction of Monroe Street should occur?

" jta running out of roadbuilding money "
Yet the multi kabillion $ court ranch needs a pick up and drop off lane.
Imho, restripe surrounding thoroughfares, adjust the traffic loops and signals accordingly, and see if any anticipated dangerous conditions may resolve themselves .
 
via simple ADA compliant curb and sidewalk transitions throughout.

thelakelander

August 03, 2011, 05:38:08 AM
^I agree.  In fact, I'd like to see the majority of the streets surrounding the courthouse property (Adams, Pearl, Duval, Monroe east of Pearl, etc.)  that we'll have to rebuild as a part of this project, turned into two way streets.
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