Baltimore Circuit Court considers private partnership for long-desired new facilities

Baltimore City Circuit Court considers private partnership for long-desired new facilities

The Baltimore Circuit Court has asked a state agency to seek bids from private developers for new courthouse facilities in an effort to jump-start the long-discussed project to repair or replace its crowded, dilapidated buildings.

The move reopens a discussion shelved in 2011, after a study concluded that it would cost about $600 million to renovate the court's historic downtown buildings on Calvert Street and build a new criminal court nearby. The judiciary also wants to consider new locations and different forms of public-private partnerships.

"I think we're going to look at every option we can look at," said Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson, the administrative judge for Baltimore, in a phone interview. "Part of it is, let's cast a wide net and see what comes up."

The Circuit Court approached the Maryland Stadium Authority a few months ago about acting as an agent to procure a developer, a process expected to cost about $84,000, said Gary McGuigan, a senior vice president at the authority. The goal, he said, is to determine whether there are less expensive options than the proposal outlined in 2011.

An April fire in the basement of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, which sent smoke through six stories and resulted in the closing of the building for more than a week, "heightened the issue," he said.

"The conditions they're in right now aren't acceptable, so they need a long-term plan," McGuigan said.

The stadium authority board voted late Tuesday to work with the Circuit Court on soliciting private proposals, a plan that now goes to a state legislative committee for review.

Pierson said he hopes to receive information from the stadium authority in "six months or so."

It remains unclear how the project would be funded, even with the possibility of a private development team. The Circuit Court is a state entity but facilities are typically the responsibility of local jurisdictions, McGuigan said.

Plans to improve the Baltimore Circuit Court facilities, which bracket the Battle Monument on Calvert Street and extend to the Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street, have circulated for decades.

A 2011 report, echoing an earlier study, described "dire" conditions at the city-owned buildings, "including spaces that are unsafe, dysfunctional, and lacking in necessary features that would allow for the respectful and dignified dispensing of justice."

The problems outlined included unreliable elevators, an inability to separate defendants from the staff and public, difficult access for people with disabilities, as well as organizational inefficiencies.

At the time, other construction projects, including a new city arena, an expanded convention center and a possible soccer complex in Westport, were higher on the city's list of priorities, said Kaliope Parthemos, chief of staff to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Parthemos told stadium authority board members Tuesday that the administration supports looking for a new solution.

"I understand their sense of urgency with regard to moving forward," she said.

The 2011 report recommended a new criminal court building to the north of the existing complex and renovating the other buildings to house family, juvenile, civil and orphans courts. It estimated space needs for the Circuit Court at more than 800,000 square feet by 2020.

Pierson said he has an eye on building a new facility for criminal hearings, and wants to look at how the existing courthouses would be used.

"I guess it's a new look, but we're certainly still looking at whether the options that were reviewed in the previous feasibility study make sense," he said. He also wants to see if the cost can be reduced.

Richard Manekin, a partner at WorkShop Development, which has worked on a number of projects in the city, said the Circuit Court probably could secure adequate facilities for less than $600 million.

Public-private partnerships can take multiple forms, he added, pointing as one example, to the long-term lease arrangement that the Social Security Administration used for its new Wabash Avenue building.

Potential developers would likely be bigger firms, he added.

"It would have to be a very large company, and my feeling is that there would be significant interest from the development community to do it," Manekin said.

A courthouse has been located on Calvert Street since 1770. The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, a Renaissance Revival structure sheathed in marble that was renamed for the civil rights activist in 1985, opened in 1900.

Renovations in the 1950s added floors and removed windows, with Circuit Court historian and archivist Judge James F. Schneider in 2000 describing the building of the earlier era as "a gloomy eyesore," gray from pollution and dismal from lack of light.

The former U.S. post office, a 1932 building now known as Courthouse East, was deeded to the city in the 1970s for an expanding Circuit Court. The Juvenile Justice Center opened in 2003.

This story has been updated to clarify the time period referred to in Schneider's comments.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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