The 26-story courthouse tower at the Justice Center complex faces an uncertain future as a result of request for proposals to be issued tomorrow by Cuyahoga County’s Public Works Department. It could be rebuilt and expanded or a new, larger courthouse facility built elsewhere downtown. At left the police headquarters is likely to be demolished in a couple of year, but the historic county courthouse in the background will likely remain (Google). CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.
RFP will seek new-build, renovate options
Two months from tomorrow, Cuyahoga County officials hope to get some ideas and cost estimates from private-sector development groups on whether to rebuild and expand the existing, 47-year-old courthouse tower at the Justice Center or build a new one. A new courthouse, which could be built next to the existing tower at 1200 Ontario St. or somewhere else downtown, was recommended four years ago as the least expensive option for providing expanded court facilities over the long term by the Justice Center Steering Committee.
A request for proposals (RFP) is due to be issued tomorrow by the county’s Public Works Department for a roughly 800,000-square-foot courthouse facility plus extra space for parking either by the county owning and constructing the building or by engaging with a private development group for a new structure with a long-term lease-to-purchase. The latter option proved more cost-effective with the 32-story convention center hotel built in 2016 and the county’s administration building that opened in 2014. Both projects kept construction costs below initial projections and reduced annual operating and financing costs.
“We are actually putting out an RFP tomorrow in regards to the courts,” said Michael Dever, Cuyahoga County’s director of public works. “It will be out on the street for roughly two months or so. We’re looking for the market to basically tell us what it would cost to refurbish and/or build another Justice Center in the range of 800,000 square feet. We think some ideas may come back in regards to where the current Jail I and II are located and in regards to what those potential uses could be.”
County Public Works officials have asked the County Council to extend an existing 0.25-percent sales tax for 40 years to finance a bond issue to pay for a new jail and courthouse. The combined price tag of those facilities is estimated total $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion. County officials said they can keep the cost of the jail at $750 million if a decision to proceed is made soon. A new jail is the county’s highest-priority big project due to inhumane conditions at the existing jail. But the range of costs is based on what the county expects from the responses to the courthouse RFP.
At a sometimes contentious County Council Committee of the Whole meeting today, Fiscal Officer Michael Chambers said Cuyahoga County has “significant borrowing capacity to address any and all future capital needs.” Specifically, he said the sales tax would generate about $500 million and the county has the capacity to afford at least a $1 billion lease. Additional funds are anticipated to come from state and federal sources.
Favored alternatives by the Justice Center Steering Committee from four years ago (DLR).
“Just as we talked many times two years ago, three years ago, the sales tax extension was always going to cover the jail and have funding for the courts,” Chambers said. “I stand by that. We’re still going to go for that. Until we get the information back (from the RFP), saying ‘no’ is a little premature. Until we have numbers, we don’t really know. But our number-one priority is the jail. Hopefully we’ll have dollars left over. I’m confident we will have money left over.”
If the county chooses to build a new courthouse through a lease, the existing courthouse tower could be disposed of much like the former 1971-built Ameritrust headquarters skyscraper on East 9th Street which the county owned but sold at a reduced price to get it redeveloped. That was part of a successful venture by the county to construct a new 220,000-square-foot county administration building.
Although smaller in scale, the administration building offers an insight into what kind of ideas the county would like to see from the private sector for a new county courthouse. The county paid $25 million up front to Geis Companies of Cleveland and Streetsboro which paid the rest of the $80 million construction cost for the eight-story administration building on East 9th Street. The county is reimbursing Geis by making escalating, annual lease payments over 27 years, starting at $6 million. At the end of the lease, the county has an option to buy the building for $1.
A leasing option for the courthouse appears to be on the minds of Public Works Department officials. In that case, the money that the county is spending now on ongoing repairs plus high maintenance and operating costs for its old, inefficient courthouse tower would be applied to making annual lease payments and financing some of the up-front costs of a new building.
“The RFP is intended to provide the county with a vehicle, a process to hold a transparent, public process and a competitive one for the courts project,” said Ryan Jeffers, senior vice president at global real estate services firm CBRE which is advising the county on real estate matters.
Prime locations downtown that have the space to accommodate a new courthouse complex may be: 1. the existing Justice Center site; 2. Bedrock’s riverfront site; 3. Stark Enterprises’ Warehouse District parking lots; 4. Metro Parking’s “The Pit” lot; 5. current site of the Wolstein Center arena; 6. the pre-1977 Central Police Station on Payne Avenue; and the Municipal Parking Lots (Google/KJP).
The existing 26-story, 420-foot-tall courthouse accommodates the county Common Pleas and Housing courts as well the Cleveland Municipal Court. It has a total of 590,419 square feet. But it needs at least 800,000 square feet including support facilities, the Justice Center Steering Committee said in 2019. Several county court operations will apparently not be part of a new or rebuilt courthouse. The Eighth District Court of Appeals and the Probate Court will likely remain in the 1912-built county courthouse on the north side of Lakeside at Ontario because judges and staff for those courts said they prefer to remain in the ornate, historic building.
“Something we heard an awful lot over the years and especially last year was a desire to make sure we had a plan for the courts,” Jeffers added. “That’s what the RFP is intended to do for the county. So the RFP will be soliciting partners and locations who have an interest in the courts project, either by redevelopment of the current site. That’s absolutely one of the options. And it will because it’s a competitive, public RFP, it will take into consideration possible other sites in town. It’s focused on downtown. That RFP will help really inform the conversation better once you see the options and the partners and development groups that are presented.”
The existing courthouse tower is the largest building in the Justice Center complex which also includes two 10- to 11-story jail blocks and a Cleveland Division of Police headquarters. The latter is relocating to the Artcraft Building on Superior Avenue at Interstate 90, on the east edge of downtown. The jail may be relocating to a site between Interstate 480 and Granger Road at Transportation Boulevard in Garfield Heights. Four years ago, the least expensive options would be to build a new courthouse tower downtown on land somewhere other than the Justice Center, with a jail/sheriff campus outside of downtown, project planners said.
Although county officials say the jail is their highest priority, no decision to build it has been taken since. Previous County Executive Armond Budish and current County Council President Pernel Jones Jr. quit the Justice Center Steering Committee over disagreements with the county prosecutor, public defender and Common Pleas Court judges. Budish and Jones accused them of dragging their feet on the jail, a claim the others deny. But the delays have caused jail costs to rise from $550 million to at least $750 million. There continues to be division among County Council members about where to build the jail, how big it should be, whether the sales tax should be extended, and if county voters should be the ones to decide it, rather than council.
“One of the other reasons we asked for the 40 years was for the flexibility to give us to build additional options for more money to fund those courts,” Chambers added. “As I indicated to you (council members) before, we will come back when we have better numbers and maybe we can get away with both (jail and courts) for 35 years (of sales tax extension). But right now we’re asking for the maximum of 40 years.”