The Premature Destruction of Downtown Jacksonville

April 12, 2012 140 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In recent weeks, many have openly advocated the immediate demolition of the Duval County Courthouse and the former city hall buildings along East Bay Street. Today, Metro Jacksonville explains why this idea is just a repeat of the failed strategies that have torn Downtown Jacksonville apart over the last 60 years.

Why Demolition Is Being Advocated

Deciding what to do with these properties after the courthouse is relocated to LaVilla has been a hot topic for several years. For decades, the city's redevelopment strategy was to return these properties back to the tax rolls. In 1997, then-Councilman Warren Jones was quoted in the Florida Times-Union claiming "this property is some of the most valuable real estate in the county."  

A decade ago, the City of Jacksonville went as far as to issue Request for Proposals (RFPs) for the redevelopment of the site. Proposals submitted included a 44-story, 675-foot skyscraper by Atlanta-based Steinemann & Company, office and residential towers by Chicago-based VOA Associates, and 40,000 square feet of retail and 55 townhouses/condominiums by Atlanta-based The Harbor Companies.

With 544,928 square feet, the seven-story county courthouse building was completed in 1957 for $8 million. During its construction, an elevator plummetted 65 feet, killing seven workers and critically injuring 12. When the decision was made to purchase the property from Southern Railway in 1953, the Florida Times Union proclaimed "the erection of the courthouse on the river's banks will demonstrate what civic leaders with vision have been trying to get over to the citizens generally for decades: that the riverfront can be made an area of alluring beauty instead of an eyesore."

Artwork in the courthouse includes four historic brick carvings by artist Earl La Pan of Miami. The carvings include Spanish conquistadors landing in Duval in the 16th century, French Huguenot Jean Ribault at Mayport in 1562, Rene Laudoniere constructing Fort Caroline in 1564, and the massacre of the French at Fort Caroline by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565.

After the Super Bowl, the idea of using the site as the location of a new convention center heated up. Backed by the Hyatt's ownership, the Jacksonville Civic Council, and Mayor Alvin Brown's administration, there is strong belief that a convention center will sit on one or both of the building sites in the future. Despite there being no firm commitment, timeline, or money set aside for construction of a new convention center, there have been calls to demolish the buildings as soon as they are vacated to eliminate the chance of having ongoing expenses associated with keeping them. In the meantime, it has been suggested that the cleared property could be used as a park until a public-private partnership could be formed for development.

A Waterfront Park

Will a temporary park be maintained or used any better than the permanent one that exists on the site today?

Empty former JEA Southside generating station site.

Empty former Shipyards site.

The temporary use of this site as open green space sounds better than what reality may provide. Both the former JEA and Shipyards sites are temporary riverfront green spaces that act more as underutilized eyesores than anything else. In fact, the Courthouse Annex site includes a seldom used and maintained green space at the intersection of Bay and Market Streets right now. In a city that has let a crown jewel like the parks lining Hogans Creek deteriorate to their current state, what makes anyone truly believe that this site will be any different?

Furthermore, if one actually walks these sites, it's evident that one really won't have a clear view of the river without trucking in mounds of dirt to form a hill to overlook the blighted surface parking lot between the courthouse and the river. As for the Courthouse Annex site, there's not much one can do to overcome the hulking back side of the Hyatt Hotel.

Unless the plan includes building a hill, the river view will be blocked by the large concrete parking deck built over it.

The next block simply offers a view of the rear of the Hyatt Hotel.

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