Yesterday, Sherry Hall - the new Policy Director for the Peyton administration who is lessening the load on Susie Wiles - emailed a document to the members of the City Council showing the two current financial options for building the new Courthouse. The document was sent as a result of an unveiling meeting, attended by many members of Council, the mayor's staff held the previous night.
The document displays a comparison between the "Unified Courthouse Plan" and "ORDINANCE OPTION 2004-1339".
"Ordinance Option" is the option that Peyton submitted to the Council in 2004. At that time, Council took the legally questionable act of approving this ordinance. It is legally questionable because it changed the voter-approved amount for courthouse construction that was allocated in the Better Jacksonville Plan. The voters of Jacksonville approved only $190 million for the construction of the new courthouse. Shouldn't such an ordinance go back to the voters?
In any case, the Ordinance Option is the hotly debated option that splits the function of the courthouse and only provides new facilities for the criminal judicial branch. In this option, the civil courts would still be housed in the current courthouse, thereby tying up riverfront property for government use until 2020 (that should be read as "no tax money for this prime real estate").
The document shows the Ordinance Option's INITIAL cost as $263 million. There obviously would be significant future costs in 2020 to consolidate the courthouse functions at that time. It also shows that this option is opposed by the main user groups, the Judges and Clerk of Courts.
The Unified Plan is estimated to cost $316 million. This option would free up riverfront property that can be sold (city $$) and tax-rolled (continuous city $$). Also, the Unified Plan will reduce operational and maintenance costs when compared to the "Ordinance Option" (I just love the name of that option). This option would also have an expansion in 2020 - for family courts only - but it would be much less in magnitude and expense than the Ordinance Option upgrade in 2020. While the mayor can not go back and apologize to KBJ Architects Inc. (they were very vocal in 2004 saying that they could bring the project in under $232 million) or even Cannon Design for firing them in 2004 (their $280 million option looks mighty attractive right now).
One thing the document does not address is the issue of the actual new design of the courthouse. The new design has been largely kept secret of late, though Peyton has said as recently as a few months ago that they should be revealed "soon". What can we expect? Would it be dreaming on our part to expect an actual "urban" design that respects the Northbank's urban landscape by not closing several streets to accommodate a sprawling complex? Probably so. More than likely, it will still be a massive LaVilla-style governmental complex that unnecessarily stretches across six city blocks (with a seventh block housing the newly constructed courthouse parking garage). But an urbanist can dream, right?
Getting back to the decision at hand...
Peyton has been haunted by his failure to build a new courthouse for almost 4 years now. Here is his chance to right this wrong once and for all. And it's not even like we think that the project will actually come in on budget this time. It will most definitely be more than the predicted $316 million. But we have to seize the moment and build this thing already. And one should note that the timing could not be better, as the mayor still has a lame duck, predictable Council. The mayor has been quoted as saying, "It's about building this building [courthouse] right today and not shifting the cost of this building to future generations."