Does Downtown Omaha Need Another Jail?
Decisions by two public bodies require the Douglas County Board of Commissioners to rethink their plan for a new justice complex. Proponents on the county board who support the current proposal designed by HDR Architecture, will now need to consider new factors to determine the final product.
The decision-making leaves the county plan without funds nor a definite construction site.
Public Building Commission: Bond Issuance
Boyle NO, Harding NO, Melton NO
Christensen YES, Duda YES
Motion failed 3-2
Omaha City Council: Historical Designation
Festersen YES, Jerram YES, Palermo YES, Pahls YES,
Harding YES, Melton YES, Gray YES
Motion carried 7-0.
Douglas County Board of Commissioners: Justice Plan
Supporters: Borgesen, Duda, Kraft, Morgan, Rodgers
Opponents: Boyle, Cavanaugh
THE FUNDING: Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission
On Thursday, January 24, the Public Building Commission rejected a 120 million dollar bond request by the county board. That price and bond issuance were identified to fund the construction of a courthouse annex, to be co-located with a juvenile detention center in downtown.
Commissioner Mike Boyle, who serves both on the building commission and the county board, is a critic of how the proposal was handled, “We owe the explanation to the taxpayers about what this is all about. And I don’t—we didn’t do the job. The county didn’t, in my view,” he said at the meeting.
With bond issuing authority, the Public Building Commission is a joint effort between Omaha and Douglas County to service infrastructure needs. The five seated members are Commissioners Clare Duda and Boyle for the county; Omaha council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding for the city; and former UNO chancellor John Christensen representing community interests.
Melton said her concerns stemmed from the lack of clear project information, "We still don't have all the answers of the cost. How are we going to pay for it? Who’s going to do it? How is the bidding process going to work?"
Harding agreed with his colleague, "I don't think I could look any constituent in the eye and say the answers to the questions I had were satisfying today.”
The 3 to 2 vote, after 4 hours of public comment and debate, sent the justice plan back to the county board.
Longtime supporter of the current proposal, a one-stop model for juvenile justice, Clare Duda vented, "When anybody has anymore questions—let me know when nobody has a question left so we can finally move forward, because if there's one question left standing, we better not do anything!"
THE CONSTRUCTION SITE: Omaha City Council
On Tuesday, January 29, Omaha City Council made the other major decision affecting the development of the justice complex. Council voted 7-0 to give historic landmark status to the building at 420 S. 18th St.
Architect Bob Perrin owns the building in question, and he refused to sell in May 2018, when the county board made efforts to assemble property for the justice project. Then on July 10, the county board voted to acquire Perrin’s building through eminent domain, a process of taking private land for public use. Perrin sued the county in October, and decision by a judge on the merits of eminent domain probably won’t be made until May 2019.
In the meantime, Mr. Perrin went to convince the community of his building’s historical significance.
In August 2018, the Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission recommend landmark status for the property.
Following the City Planning Department’s recommendation, the Omaha Planning Board voted 7-0 in agreement in October that the Omaha City Council grant local landmark status to the Perrin building.
On December 4, city council heard public comments on assigning historic status to the old dealership. Mr. Perrin gave a presentation, with the future existence of his building on the line. “It was built in 1920 and I can tell you that all of us have probably walked past the building a hundred times and never noticed it. We couldn’t wait to get past it as we walked to city hall to the Flatiron or any other place in town. So this building really has been hidden for a long time to most all of us. But it is the most unique building, I think, we have and probably has more history in it than any other buildings I ever worked on. In fact as an architect, it’s the strongest building I have seen in Omaha. It’s poured concrete with reinforced steel.”
“It’s only had two uses. From 1920 until 1948 it was automobile dealerships, and everyone of them used it exactly as it was built, except changing the signs in the outside. And then in 1948 the war department bought it and it was taken over by the Corp. of Engineers as a laboratory for testing materials, and it stayed that way until 2010 when it was sold by an auction to an investor. Then a few years later, I bought it and began to understand what the building was about.” Mr. Perrin presented a large roll of original blueprints, which he found in a trash bin inside the brick edifice after the purchase.
On December 11, council voted to delay a final decision to January 29, 2019, in an attempt to allow the judicial process concerning Mr. Perrin‘ lawsuit against the county to pan out.
The historic designation protects the building from future demolition. It prohibits the county from constructing a juvenile detention in that area, as they had planned to do.
RECOURSE: What’s Next For the county?
A cost estimate by Commissioner James Cavanaugh puts the actual cost for the justice project at around 134 million dollars and costs are expected to increase as time goes on.
Commissioners have consensus that one building would house Douglas County Juvenile Court and judges, family services, and offices of the Douglas County Attorney and public defender's office. This part of the plan is deemed the “Justice Center” or the “Justice Tower.”
The controversy starts when discussion turns to a new juvenile detention center to be relocated downtown.
County board chair Chris Rodgers has repeatedly indicated that a decision has been made on the design that calls for the one-stop model. He says that five commissioners remain intent on collocation, meaning everything for county juvenile justice located together.