Finley: Move jail, courts to Mich. Central Depot site?

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

A new proposal is being floated to resolve Wayne County’s jail quandary by moving the lock-up to the rail yards behind the Michigan Central Depot in Corktown and using the long abandoned train station to house county courts.

I can’t say for sure how serious the idea is. But I heard the same thing from several people last week: Discussions are underway with the county, city of Detroit and Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Central Depot, as well as the rail companies that own part of the site, to replace the partially completed jail on Gratiot in downtown Detroit with a new facility behind Central Depot.

Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert has been pushing the county to find alternative sites, contending the land has more value if placed in commercial use. He and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores want to build a soccer stadium on the 15-acre jail site and bring a Major League Soccer team to Detroit.

Under the Corktown option, county courts now on the east side of downtown around the unfinished jail would be moved into the Central Depot, which has stood empty since 1988 when Amtrak stopped service. The 103-year-old station is one of Detroit’s most iconic structures, as well as one of its most nagging redevelopment challenges.

It has been owned by a subsidiary of Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. since 1996, and recently the Ambassador Bridge owner refitted the building with new windows in an agreement with the city to spruce up the property.

Regardless of what happens with the jail, the county also needs a solution for its deteriorating courts. Talks remain ongoing with the state about moving the courtrooms to Cadillac Place, the state-owned former General Motors headquarters in the New Center.

The Corktown site would allow the jail and courts to be contiguous, making prisoner transport more efficient. There’s room to build parking lots, and it is easily accessible to bus lines, Michigan Avenue and nearby freeways, giving it an advantage over the state’s first choice — the abandoned Mound Road prison on the city’s east side.

But so far, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is sticking to his assessment that completing the Gratiot jail is the most cost effective option for the county.

“Others would like to see the jail site go elsewhere and have stated an interest in convincing the county an alternative site would be preferable and, apparently, are investigating alternative sites,” Jim Martinez, spokesman for Evans, said in a statement. “So far, we have not seen a proposal that would alter our current plans for the site at Gratiot.”

Construction of the $200 million, 2,000 bed jail began in 2011 under former County Executive Bob Ficano. It was halted two years later after running up $100 million in cost overruns. The county recently reached a $2.5 million settlement with two firms involved in the original project and signed a $4 million contract with a new firm to manage its completion.

Mickey Blashfield, a spokesman for Moroun, would only say of Central Depot, “Finding a major user to anchor the re-development is our primary objective. Until that occurs we would be foolish to discuss or speculate about any conversations or exchanges with any potential users.”

Moving the courts and jail to the Corktown site is an interesting idea that would seemingly solve two problems at once — if the price is right.