Time to Demolish Former Courthouse Parking Lot?

February 10, 2015 78 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

After being closed to the public since 2012 for structural problems, a portion of Liberty Street finally fell into the river. As we ponder why, how much it will cost to repair, and where the money to repair will come from, perhaps it's time to consider another alternative. Partially or completely removing the aging and decaying blighted bridge to better utilize the portion of the river under it.

The former Duval County Courthouse shortly after its opening in December 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/26866

Four decades after Haydon Burns's push to clean downtown riverfront by having government offices replace private sector industry, sentiment of the river's importance to downtown had changed. By the 1990s, a push had begun to take government offices off the riverfront, so the land could be better utilized with private investment. Soon projects such as the Adams Mark (currently Hyatt Jacksonville) and Berkman Plaza had risen. With the opening of the new Duval County Courthouse on the other side of downtown, dreams of what to do with the courthouse property include everything from building a new convention center to converting the site into a waterfront park.

The former Jacksonville City Hall and Duval County Courthouse complex shortly after the construction of the parking decks (or bridges) over the river in the early 1960s. Cranes at the Jacksonville Shipyards can be seen in the background, indicating the location of the actual shoreline. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/163675

There's just one major problem-- Not many considered that this "land," now freed up for a new use, would actually begin to fall into the river. However, the idea of an aging concrete deck falling into the river shouldn't be a surprise. This isn't land we're talking about.  It's a 50 year-old-bridge that happens to be more than a block wide. Any new use that treats this bridge as land will certainly have to involve a major replacement of the structure at some point in time, before anything new can be built on top of it. In fact, there are already plans to replace a portion of downtown's overlooked bridges. The Florida Department of Transportation has plans to spend $33 million replacing the Liberty Street and Coastline Drive bridges in 2020. That's a pretty penny and that number doesn't include the replacement of the parking lot that happens to be a bridge itself. So here's a new thought.

Why bother with 100% replacement?

Perhaps it's time to give in to what Jacksonville leaders have historically loved best......demolition.

The idea of removing aging built infrastructure along urban waterfronts isn't new. Examples can be found in cities such as Portland, San Francisco and Milwaukee where elevated freeways have been demolished and replaced with landscaped ground level boulevards. The major difference here is that instead of laying asphalt and concrete in a different type of way, we're open up a large centralized section of the urban riverfront for active maritime related uses that aren't present in downtown Jacksonville today. Something similar was done in downtown Detroit a few years ago when a cargo terminal was demolished and a portion of the site was used for an interactive wetlands reclamation park.

To many, the thought of partial or complete removal of these aging downtown bridges may sound silly. However, the reality is we have an enormous section that has already collapsed in the river. Nothing last forever, so no matter how much patching we do, as time goes on expect more failures or the dedication of large sums of money for continued maintenance.

Whatever side of the fence one falls on, it appears the time has come for Jacksonville to truly evaluate its options.

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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