Replacing county court house cost $300M Freeholders review choices for new building on old site

Twenty years after being warned that the Hudson County administration building (including the courts) on Newark Avenue in Jersey City needed to be replaced, Hudson County is finally taking steps to replace it – but at a cost six times more than originally estimated.

Hudson County Assignment Judge Maurice Gallipoli warned the freeholder board recently that if it did not take action, the court would have to go into arbitration to force the county to address the problems.

Gallipoli said the county has a statutory responsibility to provide suitable and secure facilities, and that the current building is lacking in both.

“The county has failed in its responsibility to provide suitable and security facilities to the courts for at least the last 20 years,” he said. “The justice system here in Hudson County cannot and will no longer tolerate these substandard and sometimes dangerous conditions. A replacement facility is long overdue and gets more expensive every day that passes. The county must make a commitment, and make that commitment now, to the building of a much needed new courthouse facility.”

A long history of need

Gallipoli said that 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.”

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,” he said.

County government started the process to address some of these concerns in 1991 and compiled a plan in 1993 which concluded the building was passed its prime and should be replaced. But the plan was never implemented.

Gallipoli speculated that because state government took over the operating expenses for the courts, county government apparently presumed the state would also assume costs for facility upgrades and never implemented the plan to replace the building.

“So here we are 20 years later with the same or worse problems,” he said, detailing many of the problems that included a “grossly 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.

“Perhaps the most serious problem is that of security due to the physical layout of the building, the details of which I would be willing to share with you in a non-public setting, so as not to jeopardize the safety of the sheriff’s officers and others,” he said.

A new building will have a big cost

During the same meeting, the freeholders reviewed four options for a possible replacement facility, with the cost ranging from about $300 million to $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 study and to design options

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 used for parking. But representatives from Ricci said this structure would be out of character with the neighborhood. The other three proposals gave various options that would allow the courts and county government to operate, while construction went on.

County Administrator Abe Antun said he preferred an option that would set up criminal and civil courts in one six-story building, connected by an underground concourse to a seven-story building for family courts and probation offices. The county could take all non-court operations out of the new building.

But this design brought quick complaints that the county would lose hundreds of existing parking spaces in an area already plagued with a lack of parking for courts and county business.

Freeholder Bill O’Dea also said the county has yet to determine how it would pay the cost of construction, and believed the county needed to research grants and other financial options before moving ahead.

O’Dea also pointed out that the plans presented also included operations that are not currently contained in the existing administration building, or that are slated to be moved to the renovated facilities at County Plaza near Montgomery Street.

The freeholder board and some other county operations currently have their offices across the street from the administration building in the county annex, and O’Dea said purchasing the Annex would be a better option than including these operations in a new courthouse.

email to Al Sullivan


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