Urban Land Institute Recommends Downtown Justice Center at the Rocky Mountain News Site
A panel of national experts from the non-profit Urban Land Institute recommended Friday that the City act quickly and decisively to design and build a new Justice Center complex, including 30+ criminal courtrooms, 12 juvenile courtrooms, and a 1,500-bed short-term detention facility, on the site of the Rocky Mountain News building, and the block directly to its west. The vision they described for the site includes high quality building and site design and the conversion of Gene Amole Way, between Colfax and 14th Street, from a street into a pedestrian plaza. They also urged the City to implement an aggressive timeline to place this issue on the May 2005 ballot, because as they observed, “Denver’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to an appalling level.”
The ULI panel’s recommendation was presented in a public briefing at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, following a four-day intensive workshop where panels members toured all City and County court and jail facilities, and interviewed over 65 civic leaders, neighborhood, business, and criminal justice representatives with diverse perspectives. (A more extensive list of the stakeholder groups they interviewed is included below).
In considering the initial Justice Center proposal to combine the City’s Pre-Arraignment Detention Facility (PADF), pre-sentenced inmates from County Jail and all Criminal courts facilities into one facility that would also include a new Juvenile/Family Court building and a large parking garage, ULI did recommend some modifications, including: (1) the possible acquisition of adjacent land west of the Rocky Mountain News site, (2) placing courts and detention facilities in two separate buildings on the site connected by an underground tunnel for prisoner circulation, and (3) the conversion of Gene Amole Way from a street to a pedestrian plaza. According to ULI, these recommendations were based on the need to continue the Civic Center legacy of well-designed buildings that enhance the surrounding area. Post-sentence detainees would remain at the existing Smith Road facility, which would be modified for long-term detention only.
“This was certainly a comprehensive and compelling analysis based on an impartial and extremely inclusive process,” said Mayor Hickenlooper after ULI’s presentation. “This report certainly leaves no question that this is the direction in which the City should be heading and that there is a need for great urgency on our part to do so.”
Below are answers to questions about the Urban Land Institute, the process they conducted in Denver, and Denver’s current jail situation.
Who is the Urban Land Institute (ULI)?
The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute that aims to provide responsible land use leadership to enhance the total environment. Established in 1936, the institute has 23,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines. Through its advisory services program, ULI assembles diverse groups of land use experts to participate on panels worldwide, offering recommendations for complex planning and development projects, programs and policies.
Why did the Urban Land Institute (ULI) come to Denver?
During his 2003 mayoral campaign, then-candidate John Hickenlooper expressed an interest in seeking input from an impartial, outside expert organization like ULI to assist in evaluating site options that address Denver’s need for increased jail and courts capacity. While the previous Administration conducted studies to examine various design options and sites for a proposed jail, Mayor Hickenlooper is looking to ULI to evaluate the economic, land use and community impacts of the proposed Justice Center at both the proposed downtown and Smith Road locations. ULI was previously involved in helping Denver site both the Colorado Convention Center and Coors Field.
Who did the Urban Land Institute send to Denver?
The Denver panel included (1) a jail and courts siting and program expert, (2) an architect who has worked on several justice center designs around the country, (3) a developer who focuses on urban infill projects, (4) a real estate appraisal, finance and economic development expert, and (5) a public project management consultant who has worked on a number of large public facility development efforts around the country, including a $200 million Justice Center in Florida.
Why does Denver need expanded jail capacity?
Denver’s County Jail, located at Smith Rd. And Havana, operates on average at 141% of capacity, reaching peaks of 165%. It is rated for 1,350 inmates, but its average daily population is 1,900.
Denver’s City Jail (Pre-Arraignment Detention Facility), located downtown at 14th and Cherokee, operates on average at 145% of capacity. It is rated for 158 individuals, but its average daily population is 230, with peaks over 300. Its intake averaged 17,000 per year when it opened in 1978. The intake for 2003 was 44,000 and peaked at 60,000 in 1996.
As a result of years of overcrowding, Denver lost its American Corrections Association accreditation in 2001 and is vulnerable to federal lawsuits. If the City does not take corrective action, the federal government may intervene in a manner that might be less suitable to Denver residents.
How is the ULI analysis different from previous studies?
After the previous Administration purchased the Rocky Mountain News site, they hired a team led by Reilly Johnson Architects to assess the feasibility of the News site to accommodate both detention and court facilities. That report, which was finalized in December 2003, provided a conceptual design for a possible Justice Center facility at the Rocky Mountain News site.
The ULI analysis is different because it did not focus merely on the Rocky Mountain News site, but on three options – and it provided a multidisciplinary analysis of the full social, economic, land use and community impacts of the various proposals. It provides outside, impartial recommendations to the City on how to proceed.
What options did ULI evaluate?
The three options that were evaluated by ULI included (1) the Rocky Mountain News site on Colfax, (2) renovation of both the existing Smith Road site and the PADF in addition to new courts downtown, and (3) none of the above, which would require the City to go back to the drawing board to look at site options. More details on these three options are below:
Option 1: Rocky Mountain News site – Based on the recently completed Reilly Johnson study, this proposed location would combine the City’s Pre-Arraignment Detention Facility (PADF), pre-sentenced inmates from County Jail and all Criminal courts facilities into one facility, that would also include a new Juvenile/Family Court building and a large parking garage. Post-sentence detainees would remain at the existing Smith Road facility, which would provide room for growth over time.
Option 2: “Facilities Renovation” proposal – Utilizing renovation studies completed by the City in the 1990s, this proposal looks at possible opportunities to renovate and expand existing facilities at the City Jail (PADF) and County Jail (at Smith Road), and proposes that the courts either relocate to a renovated Rocky Mountain News building or be rebuilt entirely on that site.
Option 3: None of the Above – If the panel finds critical problems with both Option 1 and 2, it may recommend that the City start over with a new site selection process for either combined jail and courts or separate facilities.
Who did the ULI Panel Meet With?
In addition to site visits to existing jail and court facilities and proposed locations, ULI held meetings with Mayor Hickenlooper, City Council Members, the Reilly Johnson Architecture team, the Golden Triangle Association, the Golden Triangle Arts District, Citizens for Better Denver, Stapleton Development Corporation, the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Sheriffs Department, Judges, Court Administrators, City Planning and Economic Development officials, cultural facility representatives, and numerous civic association, business and neighborhood interests.
Costs of the ULI Panel Workshop
The cost of the four-day workshop is $50,000, which represents .02% (.0002) of the projected cost of a Justice Center. This relatively small investment will be invaluable in presenting taxpayers with a comprehensive, impartial analysis before they vote on any jail-related proposals. This is especially important in light of the fact that a previous Denver jail initiative lost in the 2001 election.
ULI recommends that the City put the Justice Center proposal on the ballot in May 2005.
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