Wayne County takes a second swing at building new jail
For years, attorneys and visitors alike have complained about the dark corridors, unreliable elevators and the steadily deteriorating conditions at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.
In its heyday, the 12-story, brick-faced courthouse was considered state-of-the art.
But in three years, if all goes according to plan, the 50-year-old building will be replaced by a new facility as part of the Wayne County Justice Complex, which will move the county courthouse, the Wayne County Jail and the Juvenile Detention Center out of downtown Detroit.
It may not look like much yet, but work has been underway on the $533 million, multi-building complex since fall, with construction scheduled to be completed in June 2022, Warren County Executive Warren Evans said.
Demolition on the 11-acre site, a former Detroit Department of Transportation property on East Warren near Interstate 75, began in the fall and was completed in March. Crews working for general contractor Barton Malow of Southfield began excavation work in February and are about 55% done, Evans said, while workers began laying the foundation in March and have finished about 25% of that job.
"As part of that work, you’ve had excavators digging, rebar (reinforcing bar or steel) being put down and concrete being poured for the foundation," he said. "As foundation work continues, throughout the summer you should expect structural work to start becoming more visible on the site in the fall."
He concluded: "We are pleased with the progress so far. But truth be told, 2022 can’t come quick enough. That’s when the county will start realizing the benefits of the state-of-the-art facility, from both a criminal justice and cost-savings perspective."
Wayne County will pay $380 million toward the project, while billionaire Detroit developer Dan Gilbert's company, Rock Ventures has committed to $153 million, in addition to any cost overruns.
The county will use $50 million in existing IRS bonds, new bonds and general fund dollars to cover its part of the project, officials say.
As part of a land swap, Wayne County gave Rock Ventures the 15.5 acres where a half-built jail, called the "fail jail" by critics, once stood on the edge on St. Antoine and Gratiot in Greektown.
The shadow of the aborted jail lingers over the current project. Construction on that doomed facility was halted after two years in 2013 because of $100 million in cost overruns.
Gilbert, who suffered a stroke late last month, had vowed to build a $1 billion multi-use development on the site of the unfinished lockup. A formal plan has not been announced but the idea of a soccer stadium was once floated.
Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny told The Detroit News the new courthouse will have seven floors and the county courts will no longer share a building with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, as they do now. Offices for the prosecutor and sheriff will be in a separate building on the site.
The courthouse will feature meeting rooms on each floor for attorneys and defendants and include a private area where defendants in lockup can speak with counsel. Currently, defendants talk with attorneys through a screen in front of other defendants at the courthouse before and after hearings.
Kenny said the new courthouse will be a "vast improvement" over what the county has now.
"It will be a much better facility for the public," he said. "It will be a better facility for court staff and the judges as well."
Among the upgrades: 28 courtrooms equipped to video record proceedings. Instead of attending hearings, court reporters will transcribe the proceedings from the recordings.
"No one is being laid off or jobs being terminated as a result of this," Kenny said.
The new county jail will replace three lockups downtown and include 2,280 beds. The complex will include a juvenile detention center with 160 beds, a central utility plant, a maintenance building and 1,500 parking spaces.
Wayne County Jails Chief Robert Dunlap said consolidating into one lockup will ease a staffing crunch. "It will eliminate some of the overhead costs and reduce (staffing) shortages," he said. "We've been excited about the possibility for a long time."
Dunlap added while the jail will certainly be beneficial for the jail's inmates, the deputies who work in the jail will also be happy.
"You're building a new workplace for employees as well," he said.
Not everyone is looking forward to the new justice center.
Many Detroit residents living in neighborhoods near the proposed jail site have spoken out against the project, citing environmental concerns, traffic issues and proximity to schools and homes.
The Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, sued the county in federal court last summer, arguing that officials did not give voters a chance to decide whether to take on additional debt to build the complex.
The lawsuit was dismissed in April by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, who partly cited the county's publication of notices about the project in both The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press on April 17, 2018.
Casey Rocheteau, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, said Detroit Justice Center would rather see the county renovate one of the existing jails instead of building a half-billion-dollar new structure.
"People want to see community center and tax monies going toward our schools," said Rocheteau. "We understand the conditions aren't great (in the jails). Our stance is that we should be reducing the numbers of people in prisons and jails across the board."
Some residents have concerns about the location of the new justice center.
"It might be inconvenient to some," said Brianne Bailey as she stood in front of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, which houses the criminal division of Wayne County Circuit Court. "It's not going to be convenient for people to get over there on the bus. It's convenience that matters."
Krystal Banks, the owner of Banks Bail Bonds, also worries about trying to get to the new location and heading back south to 36th District Court, where a lot of her potential clients attend hearings.
There have been no plans announced to move Detroit's 36th District Court, which is overseen by the state of Michigan, to the new justice complex.
"Things are already spread out," said Banks. "It's going to be a problem. It's going to be a pain."
Attorneys Amir Makled and Allison Folmar said the move will complicate things for lawyers who now have cases at both Frank Murphy and the nearby 36th District Court.
"You can't separate the two," said Folmar who would like to see 36th District Court moved to the new justice complex. "The two go hand in hand."
Folmar said while she is sure the new justice complex will improve life for many of the jail's inmates, she isn't sure how visitors and others will adapt to the changes.
Makled said moving the county courthouse out of downtown means attorneys will face additional costs from having to park at three courts — district, county and federal — that won't be near each other.
"I'm concerned that the courthouse is being moved out of downtown," said Makled. "Other big cities keep their county courthouses in the downtown section."