Time to Demolish Former Courthouse Parking Lot?

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.

Published February 10, 2015 in Opinion - MetroJacksonville.com

The Bay Street waterfont in 1950. The future location of the courthouse deck, Liberty Street and Coastline Drive is highlighted in red. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/51099

With the St. Johns River serving as its economic anchor, early Jacksonville's landscape was not much different from any decent sized maritime oriented city dominated with wharves and steamships. By 1913, the Clyde Line Steamship Company operated two large wharves at the foot of Market and Liberty Streets. The wharf at the foot of Market Street served as the company's Boston freight house while the Liberty Street wharf was used as their New York freight house. On June 8, 1941, the Clyde Steamship Line's two piers were destroyed with a suspicious fire. After the end of World War II, Jacksonville had become a stagnant built out city with a decaying industrial riverfront. The glitz and glamour it had during the early 20th century had been replaced by growing cities in Central and Southern Florida. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, Jacksonville actually declined in population, losing 3,245 residents between the 1950 and 1960.

1913 Sanborn map of what is now the Courthouse parking lot, Coastline Drive and South Liberty Street.

Determined to revitalize his city, Haydon Burns defeated incumbent C. Frank Whitehead to become the 35th Mayor of the city on June 21, 1949. As a part of his effort to clean up downtown, his administration replaced the riverfront wharves with a new courthouse, City Hall, Civic Auditorium, parking lots and the Sears Roebuck store on what was known as skid row. In preparation for the construction of the former City Hall and county courthouse complex, the Vann Warehouse Company along Bay Street and wharves and an associated railyard operated by the Johns River Terminal Company were removed.  The courthouse building was completed in 1959 and the new City Hall a year later. Soon after their completion, the large surface parking lot over the river, was built where the Clyde Line Steamship and St. Johns River Terminal Company's wharves once stood.

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

Next Page: What Other Cities Have Done

What Other Cities Have Done

What good is a river running through downtown if you can't get in or interact with it? Let's assume complete or partial demolition of the former county courthouse parking deck, Liberty Street and Coastline Drive bridges. What could we possibly do with a reconfigured riverfront space? Here are a few examples of popular interactive waterfront uses in other cities.

Paddle Boats

Baltimore Inner Harbor

Floating Outdoor Bars & Cafes

Baltimore Inner Harbor

Pedestrian Bridges

Baltimore Inner Harbor

Wetland Restoration

Milliken State Park - Former cargo terminal converted into wetlands demonstration area which shows how wetlands act as nature's water filtration system on downtown Detroit riverfront

Fishing Charters and River Tours

Bayside Marketplace - Downtown Miami

Public Fishing

Jacksonville's Stockton Park

Interactive Waterfront Plaza

Detroit International Waterfront

Waterfront Park

Charleston, SC


Toronto Waterfront

Local Seafood Market

San Francisco

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

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-feb-time-to-demolish-former-courthouse-parking-lot

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