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Baltimore courthouses' grandeur can't mask the many problems

Nobody needs to tell workers at the Baltimore City Circuit Court about the problems with their buildings.

For years, clerks from the basement of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse to those on the upper floors of Courthouse East across Calvert Street have rattled off the issues with a curious mix of exasperation and enthusiasm.

Pests, plumbing, HVAC, space, elevators and security constitute a short list of longstanding concerns.

Everyone, it seems, has a story about a fairly recent incident when a situation that’s normally unhealthy or unsafe became intolerable or required evacuation of the building.

Everyone, the court’s administrative judge said last week, agrees the courthouses are “absolutely terrible” and that major renovations and preferably a new courthouse are the solution.

But nurturing the political will and finding the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the Mitchell building, opened in January 1900, and its 77-year-old Neoclassical sibling into the 21st century has been the challenge.

State money would be a prerequisite for a project of that size, and while a new district court in Rockville is under construction thanks to nearly $60 million in state funding approved last year, floating bonds to upgrade Baltimore’s busy court is a lot to ask given the current economic climate and budget constraints.

Study underway

To bolster their case, the city and its circuit court, through the Maryland Stadium Authority, have commissioned a feasibility study to document the inadequacies of the buildings, suggest improvements, estimate what they would cost and how they might be funded. The MSA imprint has garnered attention for its track record with the sports stadiums in Baltimore and elsewhere.

“The Governor looks forward to seeing the results of the study, but funding such a project would present significant challenges for the city and the state,” said Christine Hansen, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Michael Griebel of AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based facilities consultant who will be paid between $600,000 and $700,000, presented a first update the city’s criminal justice leaders Wednesday, and said the company’s final analysis and recommendations will come in the spring.

So far, through courthouse measurements and 130 interviews with department heads, AECOM Inc. has determined that the buildings “lack adequate space to accommodate modern court operations and projected staffing levels” and that crucial systems, like those mentioned habitually by courthouse workers, are, in fact, “obsolete or non-existent.”

Griebel also cited limited accommodations for persons with disabilities, and shared travel routes for employees, the general public and prisoners among other serious concerns.

The “bottom line,” according to the AECOM update, is that “new/renovated facilities are a critical necessity for the system today.”

Piecemeal change

AECOM is not the first consultant to say so.

Previous studies have looked at a similar constellation of issues, or specifically at air quality in the buildings, and AECOM has used them as a launch pad, according to Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland.

In 2002, a $375,000 needs assessment study conducted by Baltimore-based Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Architects and New York-based Richie Associates recommended restoring Mitchell for use in civil cases, converting Courthouse East into an office building, and constructing a new courthouse for criminal cases. That would cost $293 million, the report found. That reshuffling remains among the primary options now, Holland said.

And some change has, in fact, resulted since the 2002 needs assessment:
* Within the past year, security cameras have been installed in the hallways of Courthouse East and are monitored and taped in the basement.
* An old lab on the third floor of the same building has been converted into Master Andrea Kelly’s courtroom.
* The ventilation ducts in Courthouse East are in the process of being cleaned.
* In Mitchell, Mike Beane, the head of maintenance there, said he has half of the water fountains back up and running.

But the changes are essentially piecemeal, without much direct bearing on workers’ daily quality of life.

Thursday afternoon, Court Administrator Beverly P. Carter, who first started working in the courthouses in 1983 as a clerk to now-Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, walked past the stained-glass atrium on the second floor of the Mitchell building into the cramped and overheated office of the criminal clerk.

“Is it always this warm in here?” she asked the office manager.

Marian Soto smiled, paused and answered in much the same way courthouse employees have for years.

“No,” she said. “In the winter it’s cold.”

In addition to temperature control issues, with which particular offices cope by blocking the vents and which Courthouse East maintenance coordinator Will Carrington blames on overcrowding, there have also been persistent complaints over the past decade about mold or other contaminants in the air that make workers sick.

Nets were installed to keep pigeons from roosting on the Mitchell’s ledges in 2001 because their droppings were found to be hazardous to several workers’, including judges’, respiratory health.

Workers in both buildings talk about pests: roaches, mice and even rats that die in the walls near work areas. Some workers refer to the critters as if they were pets; Derrick Gillis, a manager in the civil clerk’s office in Courthouse East, said a mouse named “Zippity” scurries through their office during working hours.

Carrington, who said the lack of a central cafeteria contributes to the pest problem, said an exterminator visits the building every two weeks.

Another concern is the plumbing. The water fountains in Courthouse East haven’t worked for years, necessitating the use of bottled water machines in the hallways and offices. And there is “very rarely” hot water, said Christopher Stachlinski, who works in the criminal clerk’s office.

Furthermore, floods are not infrequent. Most recently on Sept. 1, an angry inmate in the Courthouse East lock-up facility repeatedly flushed the toilet in his cell.

Other problems Carrington pointed to include a leaky roof on his building and asbestos on certain pipes.

Then there are the more-cosmetic defects that contribute to the sense that the buildings are falling apart. Among these are holes in walls and ceilings, gaps in carpeting, trash in water fountains and radiator grates, and broken windows.

In the civil assignment office on the fourth floor of Courthouse East, a window facing Calvert Street has been broken for the more than eight years the women who work in that room have been there, they said.

The state of the buildings is attributable to a variety of factors, Carrington said. They’re old, the public is forever walking through them — Courthouse East even has a post office on the first floor — and he feels short-staffed as the man in charge of a building that takes up a city block and rises six stories.

Both he and Beane fielded requests for service more than once while guiding a reporter around the courthouse; Beane estimated he gets 25 calls a day.

Character

Even with all the problems, though, the men who spend the most time with the nuts and bolts of the buildings are not completely gung-ho about a new courthouse.

Beane called Mitchell a “very valuable building” that still has “life in it.”

“They don’t build buildings like this” anymore, he said, gesturing to the stained-glass windows.

Pointing to the wood paneling in Chief Judge John N. Prevas’ courtroom on the fifth floor of Courthouse East and the colorful ceiling painting just outside of it, Carrington asked if something more “cookie-cutter” and “modern” would be preferable. Any new courthouse is unlikely to have as much marble on the floors and walls or decorative brass elevator doors.

“So do you want it to be pristine or do you want it to have some character?” he said.

Frank M. Conaway Sr., the clerk of the circuit court, wants to see a new courthouse, specifically one that would combine district and circuit operations on the surface parking lot just across Fayette Street from his office.

But at 76, he doubts he’ll live to see a new courthouse — and he thinks the feasibility study is a “waste of money.”

“Why are they paying the money for what they already know?” Conaway asked.