The best place for the new county jail

Jails don't need to look like jails. They can look like office buildings and civic structures that uplift visitors and their surroundings.

During the planning process for the new Cuyahoga County Jail, a steering committee overseeing the process was shown examples of what recently built urban jails from throughout the country look like. And many of them do not look like jails from the street, including this one in Douglasville, GA, in the western suburbs of Atlanta (HOK). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM

Opinion: where & how Cuyahoga County’s new jail should rise

One thing is for certain at this time about the proposed new Cuyahoga County Corrections Center — no one wants it built near them. But there is one location where it could meet the county’s criteria and actually provide some significant community benefits, depending on how it is designed to relate to and connect with its surroundings.

County officials want the new $550 million jail built by 2025. They need a facility capable of holding up to 1,800 inmates in a modern, safer environment than the existing pair of crowded, cramped, aging structures downtown that fail to meet dozens of state standards. That means spreading out the jail’s square footage over an area of at least 30 acres and preferably 40.

According to a recent RFP reported on by NEOtrans, the new jail would preferably measure 783,297 gross square feet plus another 270,000 square feet for parking, commissary, health care, staff support and more, according to county documents.

If the site is 40 acres, the new jail will reportedly be no more than two stories tall. And, although it isn’t for certain, the administrative/support building could be slightly taller. Detailed designs don’t yet exist because the chosen site doesn’t yet exist.

But here’s where it should be:

At 2635-2730 Transport Rd. If that street doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because it’s a private street, part of a 44-acre piece of land owned by UTS Realty LLC, an affiliate of Universal Logistics Holdings.

It is used by Universal Intermodal Services for its shipping container logistics center. The site is somewhat visible below Broadway Avenue and even farther below Interstate 77, just southeast of downtown.

Map of the proposed Cuyahoga County jail site on Transport Road and below Broadway Avenue.

The best location appears to be this one but requires the relocation of an existing user — Universal Intermodal Services’ shipping container yard. It is large enough for the county’s jail needs and close to downtown as well as public transportation. But how the jail’s pedestrian accessibility relates to Broadway Avenue is a tricky situation as the shipping container yard is roughly 60 feet below Broadway — once a bridge across this lowland for the stream Kingsbury Run (Google/KJP).

Universal Intermodal’s President Don Taylor did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on rumors that the county is considering their site for the new jail and whether they would be willing to relocate.

But the site checks all of the boxes in terms of what the county is looking for. The site is more than big enough. And it’s the biggest piece of land near downtown that could be quickly repurposed since it has only one small building — a 12,000-square-foot garage built on a slab foundation — on the entire site.

However, one of the site’s earliest uses as the first refinery of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Ohio Co. means its soil would at least need a thorough environmental assessment.

Universal Intermodal and its dozens of jobs could be relocated to the remaining, unspoken-for parcel at the Cuyahoga Valley Industrial Center, 400 Heidtman Pkwy., at the industrial west end of Slavic Village. It’s a 40-acre piece of land on which Amazon recently considered for a distribution facility.

A truck terminal relocated here would be in the right spot. It is next to Interstate 77 and would be close to several large, proposed warehouses that will support Cleveland’s growing food-service industries and booming e-commerce sector.

Another jail that doesn't look like a jail. It can be a bright and attractive civic structure.

Another recently built urban jail is this one for Baltimore County, MD. It is next to a residential area and has the appearance of a contemporary office building (DMJM).

County officials said their preferences for the best jail sites will be given to properties based on their proximity and drive time to the Cuyahoga County Courthouse and Common Pleas Court — both of which will remain downtown even if a new Justice Center is built.

The distance between my favored jail site — with its public entrance located at approximately 2845 Broadway — and the existing Justice Center, 1200 Ontario St. is 2.5 miles. Google maps puts the drive time at about 10 minutes including parking.

Taking the Rapid from the nearby Tri-C/Campus District Station or the frequent No. 19 Broadway bus is approximately the same travel time as driving and getting parked. Transit access is a key component for the county’s site-selection decision-making.

The jail must also be near medical facilities. Distance from the proposed jail site to St. Vincent Charity Hospital is just 1 mile. Lastly, the new jail site should not negatively impact nearby property owners. Preferably, it would be of potential benefit to them or at least be impact-neutral.

All of those conditions can be met at the Universal Intermodal site. The jail site will be surrounded by a gritty mix of light industries, railroad tracks, truck terminals, aggregate storage yards and the like.

Broadway Avenue between downtown and Slavic Village is a traffic sewer without the traffic. It is an inhospitable environment for people.

The definition of an inhospitable environment for people. Yet this is the linkage between Slavic Village and downtown Cleveland. This view looks southeast on Broadway Avenue from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s rapid transit station. This road is also heavily used by multiple bus lines. The shipping container yard (and future jail site?) is down the hill, below the right side of the road. A newly built self-storage facility is on the left side of Broadway (Google).

Just across the tracks, including those used by the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) for its Red, Blue and Green lines rapid transit routes, is the Northeast Reintegration Center. It’s a minimum-security women’s prison for preparing them to re-enter society. Just beyond that is the United States Postal Service’s main post office for Cleveland.

GCRTA’s Tri-C/Campus District Station is a use that could benefit greatly from the jail being located here just as the jail could benefit from being close to the Rapid. But both would depend on how the jail is designed to enhance pedestrian, bike and transit accessibility.

Currently, Broadway past my preferred jail site is an inhospitable environment for human beings. It’s nothing more than a traffic sewer, minus the traffic. But it could be something much better and the jail — yes, a jail — can help improve this environment and improve non-vehicular links between Slavic Village and downtown.

GCRTA in 2018 replaced its Tri-C/Campus District Station with a more modern, handicapped-accessible facility for $7.5 million. It considered closing the little-used station. But Campus District and city officials promised to support nearby developments and pedestrian enhancements that could increase boardings there.

The new Slavic Village-Downtown Cleveland Connector Trail could help remedy the inhospitable front door for the ideal Cuyahoga County Jail site.

The Slavic Village-Downtown Connector Phase Two 2 multi-purpose trail, which is on Cuyahoga County’s trail plan, was awarded federal funding to design it. That trail, along with a jail designed with a strong street presence, could help create a more hospitable environment for walking and biking along Broadway to/from the jail and nearby Rapid station (Metroparks).

The Cleveland Metroparks recently won federal funding for design work for the Slavic Village-Downtown Connector Phase Two North which appears to route the trail along Broadway. That would be a good start to enhance pedestrian access to the Rapid station and jail. But the surrounding environment remains harsh. The jail could remedy that.

Once the trail is designed, then construction funding could be pursued. As part of its landscaping/accessibility plan, a jail located on the intermodal truck terminal below Broadway could provide a local share of funding for the trail.

One challenge to this goal is topography. The jail site is roughly 60 feet below Broadway. If fill dirt and/or a parking structure were added next to Broadway, the jail facility could “step up” to street level atop the fill and/or parking deck.

There, an administration/support building would have a commanding view of the jail below. And this administration/support building, designed with a strong street presence along Broadway and some mature trees could make for an inviting setting for walking and biking.

Across the street, let’s get rid of the newly built self-storage units while we’re at it. Why is it that these land uses which contribute zero ridership to GCRTA always find their way next to Rapid stations? Instead, replace it and the surrounding 8 acres of desolate land with a proposed 90,000-square-foot office building for the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s department.

Standard Oil's No. 1 refinery stood on the site where the county's new jail could be located.

Before the Kingsbury Run lowlands below Broadway Avenue were an intermodal yard, it was Standard Oil Co.’s No. 1 refinery, dating back to the 19th-century origins of John D. Rockefeller’s conglomerate. In this scene captured from Broadway in 1972, the facility was in its final years before closure as a Norfolk & Western freight train rumbles by on Erie-Lackawanna tracks (Dave McKay).

Next to it, build a modest parking deck for the sheriff’s office and jail visitors with its ground floor along Broadway having storefronts along the sidewalk. Potential tenants could include a coffee shop, fast food restaurant or two, law firms, bail bonds, dry cleaners, etc. The 700+ employees of the jail and sheriff’s office need someplace nearby to get lunch or take a break.

Combined, these uses could dramatically change this dead stretch of Broadway, increase transit ridership at a lightly used Rapid station and create a more humane streetscape between Slavic Village and downtown.

With the jail moving out of a transit-accessible, walkable downtown, the county should strive to create a land-use setting that continues to support transit use, walking and biking.

Creating a pedestrian-friendly setting along Broadway would encourage jail workers and visitors to use the nearby Rapid station. And downtown lawyers and paralegals visiting clients at the jail would be just a short ride away on the Rapid, with an attractive, walkable setting awaiting them at the Tri-C/Campus District Station.

It’s not often that a jail can be used to improve the city and create a more humane environment for people while promoting active transportation. But developing the new Cuyahoga County Corrections Center on the Universal Intermodal site and with a street presence along Broadway can do that while reconnecting neighborhoods and transit stations to activity centers.

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