The Premature Destruction of Downtown Jacksonville

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.

Published April 12, 2012 in Urban Issues -

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.

The Negatives of Premature Demolishing

"It's only productive if it's implemented. I've seen so many plans in the last 40 years that have talked about the development of downtown that have been put on paper and shelved."
Robert Wilson, Northside Resident
Talk of Downtown - Florida Times-Union 11/13/98

So what happens if we demolish both buildings, and the construction of a convention center is found to be unfeasible?  We don't have to travel far to find out the results. Downtown Jacksonville is littered with premature decisions to demolish building stock before having a funded redevelopment plan. Here are four downtown sites still waiting for the projects they were demolished for to finally be constructed.

1. Theatre District Block

Once home to the Imperial, Palace, and Empress Theatres, this full city block was leveled nearly 40 years ago (mid-1970s) for the construction of a $6 million, 10-story administration building for JEA. Needless to say, JEA's priorities changed, resulting in the purchase of the 19-story former Independent Life Building at the intersection of Julia and Duval Streets. Today, JEA's offices are located in the former Universal-Marion building while this once exciting block in the heart of downtown continues to be underutilized as a metal parking deck.

Still waiting for that office building after nearly 40 years of serving as a parking lot.

2. Railroad Row

Once the epicenter of Jacksonville's economy, this exciting district was virtually eliminated for new development that would spring up around the Prime Osborn Convention Center after it opened in 1985. Now, decades later, the Prime Osborn has failed to deliver, and there are calls to demolish these structures for a new unfunded convention center, and Railroad Row is nothing more than overgrown surface parking lots.

Railroad Row, 27 years later.

3. LaVilla

A major focus of Mayor Ed Austin's River City Renaissance, the elimination of LaVilla, Florida's first African-American urban district, is probably one of the most cold-blooded atrocities committed in the failed schemes to revitalize downtown Jacksonville. Efforts to "clean up the blight" during the 1990s has resulted in this once dense, walkable, mixed-use district becoming the no-mans land it is today.

Still waiting for the renaissance in LaVilla 15 years later.

4. West Adams Street (Duval County Courthouse)

West Adams Street looks completely different than it did in this 1944 image. Despite being in great shape, several of these buildings were demolished for the new Duval County Courthouse. However, the snake-bitten project's design changed so much that the current footprint is nowhere near Adams Street, meaning structures such as the Southern Bell Building could have been completely left alone. In the upcoming month, we'll be laying more sod in a downtown that's increasingly resembling a bad piece of swiss cheese, moreso than a place where market-rate revitalization will have a chance to naturally occur.

Why Adaptive Reuse Should Be Considered Before Premature Demolition

The 15-story, 210-foot-tall Courthouse Annex building was completed in 1960 as Jacksonville's City Hall. Designed by RS&H and built by the Auchter Company, the $6 million building was said to be a great institution of services to all our people for many years to come. The building features a 70-space parking structure and a terrace that once overlooked the river (now blocked by the Hyatt Hotel).

Structurally sound buildings can be repurposed into a variety of market-rate uses when allowed to be offered to the private sector. In the former city hall's case, the structure could be easily converted into a mix of uses such as market-rate housing, entertainment and dining, or helping to activate a core block in the Bay Street entertainment district. Issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) could be a method used by the city to take it off city hands, while also generating long-term revenue for the City. The structures below are examples in peer communities that have survived demolition and now generate tax revenue and street life for their respective communities.

The Park Harvey

image courtesy of

A 17-story office building that was renovated into 162 affordable apartments that has stellar occupancy rates despite no parking arrangement. The building was also renovated using historic tax credits.

Location: Downtown Oklahoma City

Year Built: Completed in 1957 as the home of Fidelity Bank

Year of Adaptive Reuse: 2006

Site Acquisition Costs: Purchased by Gardner/Tanenbaum Group for $2 million

Total Project Costs: $20 million

Goldtex Building

Image courtesy of

An 11-story, long abandoned textiles factory in Philadelphia's North Chinatown neighborhood that was recently purchased. Plans call for the building to be transformed into a modern apartment project featuring 163 rental apartments and 7,000 square feet of retail on the first floor. The design will be modern, with a new facade of metal panels and vegetation-covered biowalls.

Location: Philadelphia's North Chinatown

Year Built: 1929

Year of Adaptive Reuse: 2012

Site Acquisition Costs: Purchased by Post Brothers Apartments for $5 million

Total Project Costs: $38 million

Rendering of renovated Goldtex Building. Image courtesy of

1001 Woodward

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

A 25-story tower originally constructed as the headquarters of First Federal Savings and Loan. In 2008, the building was renovated for office use after a conversion project into condominiums stalled. To overcome the problem of the narrow building only having 13,000 square feet on each floor, the building is being marketed to smaller office users.

Location: Downtown Detroit

Year Built: 1965

Year of Adaptive Reuse: 2008

Site Acquisition Costs: Purchased by Greektown Casino owner Dimitrios Papas for $5.5 million

Total Project Costs: $3 million to revamp mechanical systems for office use and $14 million to purchase an adjacent parking garage

Taking The Proper Steps

This article isn't an indictment on the desire by many to see a convention center constructed on one or both of these parcels. However, it is an indictment on what seems to be continued implementation and promotion of failed policies and redevelopment strategies that have plagued Downtown Jacksonville since Haydon Burn's leveling of the wharves sixty years ago. Pedestrian-scale building fabric is one of the most important elements of a vibrant downtown area. Not only does it give an urban community character, it also creates market-rate opportunities for small business growth to take place. For example, it's much easier to open a Mark's, Chomp Chomp, or Burrito Gallery in an existing building, than raising the capital and getting financing to construct a massive Shipyards development.

If we truly analyze our past decisions regarding downtown, the haphazard elimination of buildings over the last half century is a major reason for the struggling condition that exists today. To properly prepare for the future, we need to learn from our mistakes of the past. Changing the past is as simple as acknowledging our mistakes and correcting them at the planning and policy level first. This means before outright endorsing the use of taxpayer dollars for the premature acquisition of dynamite, it would be more logical to actually finalize a redevelopment plan for the courthouse site. A finalized plan should also include a dedicated funding mechanism to implement such a project with a timeline that won't have this site looking like a scorched piece of earth for an extended time period...which would be a detriment to the surrounding area.

Article by Ennis Davis.

Historic Images courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

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Metro Jacksonville