Editorial: Rid downtown Detroit of jails
Barring some really creative thinking and even more creative financing, Detroit is going to be stuck with a jail on a choice piece of downtown land, one much better used for expanding the district’s burgeoning commercial, entertainment and residential boundaries.
Last week the Wayne County Commission gave County Executive Warren Evans the go-ahead to explore two options for dealing with the unfinished jail on Gratiot at the eastern edge of downtown. Both involve finishing the project, which stands as a testament to the failure of the previous Robert Ficano administration.
Evans may be right that completing the jail is the most cost-effective approach, and the only one Wayne County can afford.
But it is still galling to think that bad government will leave a permanent scar on Detroit’s rebounding downtown.
The jail construction began in 2011 and was supposed to be a $300 million project. But a lack of oversight from the Ficano administration and a series of changes in the original plans quickly ballooned the projected costs to nearly $400 million, with the facility still just half-finished. Construction was suspended, a criminal investigation launched that resulted in three indictments, and lawsuits filed and counter-filed.
The commission agreed last week to settle two of those lawsuits — with AECOM Technical Services an Ghaffari Associates — to allow work on the jail to resume.
Meanwhile, it costs the county $1.2 million a month to keep the jail construction site secure.
Obviously, something has to be done. Evans proposes finishing the jail as a smaller facility, at an estimated cost of up to another $200 million. The options he pitched to the commission are for either a 1,944-bed facility, closer to the original plan, or for a smaller 1,504-bed jail. Neither would meet the county’s current need for lock-up space.
A third option exists, but it’s not one Evans is actively pursuing.
That alternative would move the jail, as well as other lock-ups and all court facilities in the neighborhood, out of downtown and to the state’s closed Mound Road prison in northeast Detroit.
The state pitched that idea from the beginning, but it was rejected by Ficano.
Quicken Loan’s Dan Gilbert has offered to buy the partially finished jail, and the county’s downtown Guardian Building, for $50 million. Gilbert, who owns the nearby Greektown Casino, wants to fill that space with offices, retail and housing, creating a signature eastern entrance to downtown.
That’s what should happen. But it would take far more money from a county that doesn’t have any, or a good deal of help from the state.
It seems a shame to give up on a proposal that could spare a downtown that needs a larger commercial footprint from dreary jails and courts that discourage neighboring development.
Evans says he’ll keep Mound Road on the table, and is open to ideas for making it financially feasible. Hopefully those ideas will surface before the county permanently enshrines this failure in concrete.