Duval County Courthouse: Still stumbling in the Dark

June 5, 2008 91 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

$350 million finally approved, a third design team hired and four years later, the questions raised in this letter to our city officials still remain unanswered.

Now that the Mayor's Office has been approved to move forward on a $350 million courthouse, little to no effort has been given to finding the best and most efficient use for the land left over from the county courthouse's superblock footprint.  Where does DVI and the JEDC stand on this issue?  The courthouse is too large of a project to not take advantage of in the effort to bring a vibrant atmosphere to Downtown.

What will happen between Adams and Monroe Street? Or the block immediately across Pearl Street?  Can we create a space that the entire community will be proud of and enjoy?  Or is the importance of this space and its ability to attract additional development to the area an afterthought?


Prospectus for a Court House-LaVilla District Urban Design Study

A Proposal to examine the urban design implications of the New Duval County Courthouse Complex and the surrounding western area of the Downtown

Making the Most of Jacksonville’s new “Court House Square”

 The crux of the problem and opportunity presented by the new Duval County Courthouse is that, because of its massive scale and strategic position within the western part of Jacksonville’s Downtown district, it will radically and irrevocably alter the existing urban fabric of the core city.  Seen in this light, moving the Court House from the river to the western edge of the downtown core is not so much a simple real estate swap, but the single most significant “urban design/planning” element of the entire Better Jacksonville Plan.  With careful, proactive planning and execution, the new Court House project can indeed become the capstone of the Plan and rekindle a real urban revival in this community.

  Taking up, as it does, six or seven city blocks and closing a major downtown cross street, the new courthouse will, in effect, spatially redefine how the entire western half of the Downtown functions and will significantly alter the flow of traffic through the entire district.  Thus, beyond all of the difficult issues surrounding the cost and functionality of the building itself, the urban design/community planning implications of this project are so great that nothing sort of a comprehensive urban design review [similar in scope to the Brooklyn-Riverside Avenue study] can even identify all of the parameters of its impact.

      For the purposes of this prospectus, I would define the new Court House-LaVilla district as being bounded on the west by Interstate 95, on the east, by Hogan Street and the Skyway Express, on the north, by the State and Union Street one-way pair, and on the south, by McCoys Creek and the St. Johns River.


Specific Urban Design Elements To Be Considered

1.   Spatially Redefining Downtown Jacksonville

      As mentioned, the new Court House project will irrevocably alter the existing rectangular grid pattern of Downtown Jacksonville, moving from the existing broken (by LaVilla – see below) grid system to a “super block” configuration.  Again, from an urban design standpoint, it cannot be overemphasized just how important a change this is, and how pregnant with opportunities for redefining how Jacksonville's core city functions as a modern urban space.

      As in the case of Jacksonville's Great Fire, this project presents an opportunity to “start over” in a significant part of the core city.  Now, instead of putting up with a set of disconnected – and often conflicting – urban elements, we have the ability (if we choose to exercise it) to unify these existing elements into an integrated whole.

2.   Rethinking Traffic Circulation in the Downtown

      As the new Courthouse “super block” will radically change the existing circulation pattern of the Downtown district [as has already happened to a lesser extent in LaVilla], a thorough rethinking of the purposes and functions of the existing street system is in order*.  Moreover, in addition to the closure of Monroe Street and the reconfiguring of many connecting streets, there is the directly related issue of how entrance and egress from the Downtown will be handled with respect to new I-10 - I-95 interchange.  Again, here is a golden opportunity to do some proactive, synoptic planning that will pull all of the puzzle “pieces” together and suggest some unique, strategic urban design opportunities for the City.

  *Note that the existing King & Robinson study (May 2003) is purely a traffic [Level of Service] study, and says nothing about any aspects of urban design or how major elements of the City's Downtown street system might be reconfigured into a better and more functional pattern.  While the urban design process relies upon the input of traffic engineers [as in the case of the Brooklyn study], this is merely one of many elements that will be used in evolving a comprehensive master design plan.

3.   Learning form LaVilla – Avoiding the “Ready, fire, aim!” Effect

  It is almost universally acknowledged that many of the anticipated opportunities in LaVilla that were sold to the City Council and others as the rationale for its redevelopment have either been lost or severely diminished.  Whatever the reasons for this situation, it is clear that the LaVilla project has not lived up to its full potential as an example of targeted urban redevelopment, and – as importantly – it has failed to keep the promises made to both its former residents and to the larger minority community.   

  Even though a number of major design elements – such as the Convention Center, the LaVilla School of the Arts, and a number of commercial and institutional developments – are already in place, there remains the opportunity to create a more unified and creative agenda with respect to what this district might ultimately become.  As it stands, there seems to be no overall perspective on what is supposed to be, or – lacking effective implementation strategies – how to get there.  Moreover, because it is the vital “connector” between the new Court House super block and critical transportation links from I-95, it must be examined as an integral part of this larger study area.

 Beyond its obvious urban design potential, specifically targeting the historic LaVilla neighborhood for this level of intense analysis can also perform several important political functions.  First, any new design study [again, as in the case of the Brooklyn-Riverside Avenue exercise] must explicitly address the needs and desires of its former residents, and come up with creative, doable strategies to fulfill at least some of the original promises that were made to them.

      Secondly, LaVilla, as a whole, marks the most significant failure to date of Jacksonville’s efforts to redefine and recreate a viable and vibrant Downtown.  While we have indeed enjoyed many successes in the last ten years, the failure to have a well-conceived master plan and implementation strategy [the “Ready, fire, aim!” approach again] for the western half of the City is a dead weight that we ought no longer to carry.  Drawing on the conclusions of the proposed comprehensive urban design study, however, a redeveloped LaVilla might finally fulfill much of its original potential.  In this sense, the City Council will have kept its word to both the displaced residents of the area and to the citizens of Jacksonville as a whole.

4.   Putting All the Existing Pieces Together -- The Cost-Benefit Question

      As I and others have long observed, when it comes to downtown redevelopment, Jacksonville seems to have nearly all of the necessary elements – or “puzzle pieces,” as I like to call them – to become a truly great urban place, but we seem to be lacking a strategic vision of what the “puzzle” should look like once it is done.  And, even though The Better Jacksonville Plan was a major milestone on the road to creating such a vision, there is still a great vacuum in our collective thinking with respect to how all of its constituent projects, and the Court House in particular, tie together into some sort of unified whole.

      The proposed Court House - LaVilla District Study is precisely the vehicle needed to show us what the completed Downtown “puzzle” might look like, and what pieces of it are either already on hand or need to be obtained.  [The issue of what to do about the existing Prime Osborn Convention Center – and all of the existing/on-going studies that relate to this question – must also be explicitly included in this proposed urban design analysis.]  Drawing on the recent lessons of Brooklyn-Riverside Avenue and LaVilla (representing, respectively, a great potential success and a demonstrated failure of the planning process) it is up to the City Council to insure that this present challenge does not go unanswered.
       The most amazing thing to me, on both a personal and a professional level, is how willing our local government appears to be to spend – literally – millions and millions of dollars on various narrowly focused cost estimation and implementation studies for the Court House proper [think, for example, of the City’s incredibly open-ended contract with Global Performance!], without for a moment taking into account all of the obvious urban design implications of what they are doing.   Looking only at what already has been spent, this omission is truly mind-boggling!

      Again, if LaVilla epitomizes the lackluster results of this sort of “Ready, fire, aim!” approach to planning (not to mention all of the money that has been spent on the acquisition of property, infrastructure improvements, etc., in this district), isn’t it about time that we try something better?  For a tiny fraction of a percentage of all of the money that is going to be spent – one way or another – on the new Court House, a comprehensive urban design study of the nature that I have outlined can quickly and easily be done.  Why, then, aren’t we doing this?

By Milt Hays, Jr
September 28, 2004


Pioneer Courthouse Square - this public space occupies a full city block that was once a parking lot and is now affectionately known as Portland's living room.  Named after the Pioneer Courthouse that directly faces it. To the east the "courthouse square" features a MAX light rail stop, a Starbucks, public art, outdoor chess tables, a cascading waterfall, a public information center, and an amphitheater used for musical performances and other events. 


 With little thought being paid to how the new courthouse will interact with its urban surroundings and stimulate new development, this is the visual scene that will front the courthouse complex.

Would it be beneficial for the City of Jacksonville to create a interactive public space around the courthouse grounds that could help tie in the courthouse facility to its surroundings and serve as an alternative location to the festivals currently isolated at Metropolitan Park?  Or would we be better off improving Hemming Plaza and forcing City Hall to sell the remaining severed blocks of the new courthouse site for private development?  Where is City Hall and our Downtown Advocates on this issue?