While estimates vary on just how much it will cost to replace the county administration building and court house at 595 Newark Ave., some freeholders say local taxpayers can’t afford it.
This is not just because the construction costs could be as high as $250 million, said Freeholder Jose Munoz recently, but also because to make the transition work, the county would have to take private property currently on the tax rolls in Jersey City.
The existing administration building, constructed in the 1960s, contains state and county courtrooms, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, and other county offices. The new building would contain mostly courtrooms.
County officials were notified about the problems at 595 Newark Ave. more than 25 years ago – although the cost is nearly 10 times what the county originally estimated. A 1988 study done by the Nation Center for State Courts showed that the current administration building was “functionally unsatisfactory in terms of circulation, structural and environmental systems.”
“This is not fair to the county or to the city taxpayers.” – Freeholder Jose Munoz
In recent history, the freeholders considered a plan that would construct a replacement in stages, making use of the former jail site (currently a parking lot) and the site of the current buildings. But a more recent plan would construct the jail away from its original site – sparking opposition from Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Freeholder Munoz, and Jersey City Councilman Richard Boggiano.
The nearby site includes a block of land bounded by Newark Avenue, Hoboken Avenue, Oakland Avenue and Cook Street, across the street from the existing building. Two properties would be donated to the county by former Rep. Frank Guarini in exchange for the building being named after him, but other property would have to be purchased or taken by eminent domain.
Originally estimated at a cost of between $150 to $170 million, the plan, according to Munoz, could cost as much as $250 million.
“This is not fair to the county or to the city taxpayers,” he said.
Local developer Tony Deluco, who owns property in the proposed section, has plans to construct an 11-story residential building there unless he is forced to sell to the county.
The most recent plan, if approved by the freeholders after they reconvene in 2014, would create two new buildings and condemn property to allow Central Avenue to be extended to Newark Avenue.
Boggiano said he objects to the plan and its costs, and believes the property should be used by developers for residential units.
The freeholders are under pressure from the courts to build new space. However, construction could take three years, and the county will have to be space for trials during that time.
“If we build on site,” said Freeholder Chairman Anthony Romano, “we have a problem with finding a secure location for criminal trials.”
Munoz, however, said that there is already county space at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny that is set up for a backup court.
“We can use that space during the construction,” he said. “The biggest issue would be transportation to the site.”
Munoz believes the county should revert to the original plan for staged development on the current site.
“This would save money in purchase of the land and building a new road,” he said. “We already own the land.”
A choice of two plans
Over the last several years, the freeholders have been studying at least four options, some of which cost as much as $345 million.
The recommendations were made by Ricci Green Associates in conjunction with Dean Marchetto Architects, who were responsible for the design of the Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus.
They were asked to review the 1993 Rothe-Johnson Associates Courthouse Space Requirements Study by the Hudson County Improvement Authority, and was retained to create a programmatic master plan. A programmatic master plan provides all of the space needs, together with broad options that accommodate those needs.
The most extreme of the four proposals would consist of a single 19-story tower into which all existing operations would be moved, leaving the existing building to operate until construction was complete.
The existing building would later be demolished and the property would be used for parking – and this would help offset the cost of construction.
But in 2008 representatives from Ricci said the structure would be out of character with the neighborhood.
The freeholders tabled an ordinance that would have started the process for the off-site development of a new two-building concept.
“After meeting with residents in the area, I can understand their concerns,” said Romano. “We need to look at this to make certain it is the right thing to do.”
Current problems in the building include an inadequate heat and air-conditioning system, lack of space for court operations, elevators that are regularly in disrepair, antiquated electrical systems that require the county to seek parts from junkyards to repair, a building façade that is crumbling, leaky windows, a ground floor garage that regularly floods, and a drainage system that sometimes results in human waste backing up out of toilets. A recent evaluation also showed that there were security problems due to the odd lay out of the building.
“The courtrooms themselves are undersized for today’s standards,” the report from the 1990s said. “The space that is provided for a jury box (where needed), spectator seating, and counsel tables is extremely tight and uncomfortably close. The courts’ overall appearance and stature could also be enhanced through the use of double height ceilings.”
The study said that the building had problems with security control, private access, sound, temperature, and atmosphere as well as an inadequate electrical system and problems involving asbestos – problems that still exist today.
Even minor repairs to the building have become problematic.
“The heating and ventilation system, then as now, rendered some rooms totally unusable,” Munoz said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.