City pushes for study on courthouse renovations

November 28, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Long-stalled efforts to renovate and expand Baltimore's outdated courthouses began again this month after city officials asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to do a formal study of the project.

The city and courts have set aside $700,000 for the feasibility study, which must be approved by two General Assembly committees before it can begin, said George Nilson, the city's solicitor.

It would be the second study in five years. The first elaborated on previous reports and identified eight sites where a third courthouse to handle criminal cases could be built. In 2003, the price tag for a new building was estimated at $130 million.

Nilson said the project has not progressed much in five years because it is "large, complex and expensive," and, until recently, the city's judicial leadership has not been able to "get the attention" of city and state officials who control spending.

The consultants on the first study concluded that the more than century-old Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on the west side of the 100 block of N. Calvert Street should handle civil trials. The courthouse across the street would house offices for prosecutors, clerks and other court employees. The cost of the renovations was estimated at nearly $200 million at the time.

Both buildings on Calvert Street are in need of repairs. Elevators in the courthouse on the East side of Calvert Street often don't work properly. Some courtrooms are so small that jury selection must take place in another building, while others are so large that it's difficult to hear testimony.

There also is no direct access between prisoner lock-up facilities and most courtrooms, forcing guards to walk shackled inmates through public hallways.

"Like most buildings that are more than 100 years old, the Mitchell Courthouse is not ideally suited to today's uses," Nilson said. "The situation we have is that defendants awaiting trial are being moved in the corridors where the general public also is moving, and they're also often waiting out in hallways where witnesses also are waiting."

The city's Chief Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland declined to be interviewed for this story.

Nilson, who submitted the city's request for the feasibility study Nov. 10, said he expects the legislative committees to make a decision on the study in two to three weeks. Feasibility studies are typically completed in three to six months.

Jan Hardesty, a spokeswoman for the Stadium Authority, said the city approached the agency because it has experience restoring large public buildings, including the Hippodrome, the Warehouse at Camden Yards and Camden Station.

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