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CJCC gets Baltimore courthouse renovation study

Courthouse rendering Option C

The latest plan to upgrade Baltimore’s outdated and dysfunctional circuit court buildings calls for extensive renovations to the existing Calvert Street courthouses and the construction of a new criminal courthouse a block away, an undertaking that will cost as much as $600 million.

The feasibility study presented Wednesday at the Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission’s monthly meeting confirmed much of what courthouse regulars already knew: A major overhaul is needed to bring the city’s criminal justice system into the 21st century — and funding such a project is going to be very difficult.

Marcella A. Holland, the court’s administrative judge, conceded variables remain, including where the money will come from and when the project might be completed. But she proclaimed “today is a good day” because “we now have a roadmap and directions” to potentially having a new courthouse complex within six to eight years.

“Now we all need to get to work,” she said. “From now on, we are courthouse forward.”

Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. quickly held the expectations up to the harsh light of reality, questioning the wisdom of paying $700,000 for a feasibility study — $300,000 paid by the city, $400,000 by the circuit court — when it’s doubtful the city can afford the prescribed fixes.

“Mr. Conaway, this is Day 1,” Holland responded, saying she can’t just “snap [her] fingers” and have a new facility. When he pressed the issue, Holland cut him off.

“Mr. Conaway, you need to read the full report,” she said.

That exchange came after a PowerPoint overview delivered by Kenneth J. Jandura, principal at the consulting firm AECOM, which was hired by the Maryland Stadium Authority two years ago. Another AECOM representative had promised the report would be out by spring 2010.

Jandura, a courthouse specialist, said interviews and site evaluations revealed “very congested, overcrowded” courthouses that required the public, prisoners and staff to use the same hallways and elevators. He said they are “on the verge of breaking down.”

Under the new scheme, the new building would supplement rather than replace the 111-year-old Mitchell building and Courthouse East.

The Mitchell building would house just the juvenile and family divisions, as opposed to the civil and criminal court functions it houses now. Renovations, which would include secure elevators and more light, would cost between $143 million and $150 million.

Courthouse East, the old federal courthouse the circuit court now shares with the U.S. Post Office, would host the civil and orphans courts, the jury assembly area and the register of wills. That would leave almost 70,000 square feet available for the district court’s civil division or for rent to government agencies or private law firms. Renovations to the 1932 structure would cost about $160 million.

The new building, which would include the criminal division, judges’ chambers and a domestic violence center, would either sit in the block south of Courthouse East or in the block north. The north site — bounded by East Lexington, Davis and East Saratoga streets and Guilford Avenue — is preferred over the south site, which Jandura said would be “very tight” and exceed the city planning department’s 200-foot height restriction.

For either site, there would be special parking and entrances for judges as well as a skyway between the new and old buildings.

The price tag for the new building ranges from $269 million to $290 million. It would need to be built before the other buildings could be renovated, Holland said, because there is no “swing space” to house the courts in the interim.

Designs for the new building depend on the site and the number of courtrooms per floor, but all involve lots of natural light. “We found that light helps to ease the tension that people experience when they come into the courthouse,” Jandura said of his company’s past experiences remaking courthouses.

The designs all feature contiguous blocks, from top to bottom, for judges’ chambers, courtrooms, the Office of the State’s Attorney, the clerk’s office and the sheriff’s office.

Earlier this year, new State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said he would move out of the courthouse if he could find and pay for contiguous office space. His spokesman said the plan released Wednesday is “ambitious.”

“We hope [Judge Holland] succeeds in obtaining the much-needed improvements to the courthouses,” said Mark Cheshire, the spokesman. “It will not change our effort to move out of the courthouses into contiguous space, which is really essential to the effectiveness of the state’s attorney’s office.”

There was no visible reaction from the members of the CJCC when the overall costs slide appeared on the screen, but for those experiencing sticker shock, Jandura presented some upside.

According to the study, the circuit court could save $6.1 million each year in operational costs, such as maintenance and utility bills.

While Holland seemed hopeful for state money, since the court makes money for the state’s general fund and could potentially house state agencies, including the district court, one lawmaker cautioned that it is not a given.

State Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., chair of the Senate’s capital budget subcommittee, said while district courts are the state’s responsibility, circuit courts are on the local jurisdictions’ dime.

“I don’t think they could count on anything really,” he said, “but if there was something put in [the budget], it could just be a very small amount, if any at all.”

Even if Gov. Martin O’Malley were inclined to earmark money for the courthouse, DeGrange said, the state has too many other obligations.

“Let’s just say that that’s not going to happen,” he said.

O’Malley spokesman Shaun B. Adamec said it is too early to discuss funding for the project. A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not return messages Wednesday, and City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who chairs the council’s budget and appropriations committee, could not be reached for comment.

Aside from funding, a more thorough site analysis and design analysis will be needed before breaking ground, Jandura said.

“This is very conceptual,” he said. “We’re looking at it from 35,000 feet down.”

But Holland, who has been administrative judge since 2003, seemed determined.

“We don’t have a choice,” she said, referring to “internal threats,” like fires and floods, as more worrying than guns or bombs coming from the outside. “These buildings can’t keep going like this.”