Thinking Anew about Monroe Street and the Courthouse

February 24, 2011 21 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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.

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.