Judge prods county to move ahead with new court house

Freeholders are on the verge of bonding for purchase of property on Cook Street

A judge told the Hudson County Board of Freeholders last week to get their act together and acquire a site for a new county court house before the cost of the land becomes too high.

“We need a criminal court house,” said Hudson County Assignment Judge Peter Bariso. “We do not have one now. We have an administration building that hosts a criminal court house inside of it. But it’s not the same thing.”

Bariso told the freeholders at their Sept. 9 caucus that the cost of property is rising and if they do not act soon, the land might become unaffordable. Several major residential projects have broken ground in the Journal Square area, which has the potential to raise property values.

The freeholders have been debating a new court house complex for more than a decade to replace the County Administration Building on Newark Avenue. The building was constructed in the 1960s but has had massive and costly problems over the last 20 years.

The freeholders plan to purchase a block along Newark Avenue for the new court complex. They were expected to issue a $9 million bond to buy a key part of the site this week.


A delay could be dangerous


But Freeholder Bill O’Dea warned that purchasing the block bit by bit was less desirable than bonding for the entire site, and he proposed the county issue bonds to pay for the whole site, the price of which is still being estimated. The membership of the freeholder board will change radically in January, he said, and if the current board is committed to building the new court house, it should issue bonds and buy the whole site before the new board takes over.

But Bariso seemed frustrated by the delay, saying that he had come last November to plead for a new court house and the county has yet to act.

“This is one more delay,” he said, noting that the county has the ability to get the land. About 30 percent of the block is owned by Jersey City, and the rest by private owners. The city, he said, is willing to let the county acquire its portion and the county has the right to take the rest for public use through condemnation.

“There is nothing stopping you, except it costs money. You are a government body. You have the right to get that property,” he said.

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 now 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 administration building was “functionally unsatisfactory in terms of circulation, structural and environmental systems.”


Current building has many problems


Current problems in the building include inadequate heat and air-conditioning, 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 layout 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.

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

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. The current plan calls for the purchase of 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.


Meanwhile, the cost rises…


Originally estimated at a cost of between $150 to $170 million, the eventual plan, according to Freeholder Jose Munoz, could cost as much as $250 million. Over the last several years, the freeholders have been studying at least four options, some of which cost as much as $345 million.

Purchasing the land is the first step to locking in the lowest possible prices, O’Dea said, and preventing a possible change of heart by future freeholders – since there is opposition to constructing the facility on that location. Some in the community said the new complex would alter the nature of the neighborhood. But the area will likely change because of new development nearby. The county also has the potential to off-set the cost of land purchase and construction by selling off the land upon which the current administration building is located. The new complex would include desperately needed parking for jurors and increased security for the more than 600 people employed in the current building, officials said.

O’Dea said that the proposed bonding could move ahead to purchase the $9 million parcel, which Bariso said was critical for creating the criminal court, and then bundling the cost for the rest of the block’s property into a second bond.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.


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