Saturday, May 5, 2018

Open heart surgery in Baltimore's downtown?

Public buildings often accurately reflect the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people. … For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of the law and government but as a meeting ground, cultural hub, and social gathering place. -- Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (US Supreme Court, 1972–1987)

It has become cheap fare to talk about the inevitability of change, to even embrace disruption but rarely comes a disruptive move along so stealthily and at the same time with so much advance notice as the one hidden in a brief article in Baltimore's edition of the BBJ this week. Its headline:
Metro West complex eyed for new Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse. Everybody has heard this before, the existing courthouse is not up to snuff, the mater has been studied for years, so what's the big deal? In one more move the Maryland Stadium Authority, a State agency which now routinely determines the future of all kinds of things in Baltimore (schools, arenas, had issued a request for expressions of interest by MSA in December of 2016. It must have taken a long time to evaluate the seven responses or maybe it just took a long time until someone remembered to ask what had been proposed as the BBJ did. As a result the journal now holds the results in its hands as the one who engaged in the weeks of wrangling it takes to succeed in a public information request. 
The Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse and the Battle Monument

The finding is pretty explosive. While previous studies contemplated rehabilitation or new construction in the immediate vicinity, this time MSA declared the most cost effective idea to be the one which moves the court house to the Metro West complex on Mulberry and Franklin Street in Baltimore's Westside at the western fringe of downtown, a 1.1 million square foot suburban urban renewal style development which the Social Security Administration left vacant when the administration moved their functions to a brand-new building at the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station. MSA figures that it would cost a cool $400 million to modify what Social Security abandoned so the complex would suit the needs of the Circuit Court. The complex is now in the hands of a private developer and as it has become current  practice, hope to find the big chunk of money needed for the suggested solution resides with a private public partnership of sorts in which the City could lease the space from the developer and thus pay  for the renovation over time. The 2016 request for expressions of interest searching for "firms" can only be understood if one subscribes to this new belief that the public is best served when the private sector finances what used to be built from public funds or municipal bonds:
The Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) is seeking Expressions of Interest (EOI) from qualified firms to address the renovation and/or replacement of the existing Circuit Courthouse Complex in Baltimore City (the “Complex”).
The Complex is comprised of the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse (opened in 1900) and Courthouse East (opened in 1932). The age and design of the Complex are negatively impacting the operation of the facilities. MSA and the Circuit Court for Baltimore City (the “Court”) are seeking options to address this issue. Options to be considered include, but are not limited to, one, or a combination of, the following.
1. Housing all or most of the Circuit Courthouse Complex in a new or renovated building at a suitable location in the City of Baltimore other than the current Circuit Courthouse Complex;
2. Construction of a new criminal courthouse “adjacent” to the existing Circuit Courthouse Complex to provide a modern and secure criminal court facility, together with whatever other improvements to the current Circuit Courthouse Complex are feasible;
3. New use options for either or both of the existing courthouse buildings if the courthouse function moves from the current Circuit Courthouse Complex to another location; and
4. Financing alternatives for the options listed above, including, but not limited to, long term leases and public/private partnerships. (MSA ROI)
It is easy to list all the shortcomings of historic buildings from building systems to exit and security conditions and it is equally easy to imagine that a larger, more modern structure facilitates the remedy of those issues. That much was already established in a detailed report completed in 2011.
The old post office, the Courthouse East
In the early 21st  century, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City struggles with dire existing building conditions, including spaces that are unsafe, dysfunctional, and lacking in necessary features that would allow for the respectful and dignified dispensing
of justice. (AECOM report)
But the issue goes way beyond codes and systems, nothing less than the health of Baltimore's historic civic is at stake. If the removal of the Social Security functions from the already ailing Westside was traumatic, the removal of those two courthouses from Baltimore's historic downtown core is like open heart surgery.  What makes up the civic heart of a city cannot be reduced to engineering questions, and it shouldn't be simply a matter of the trickiest financing, since it involves an entire eco-system of court related offices and services and plazas and spaces which are iconic public speech areas and represent the civic identity of an entire city.

Unlike the move of the SSA from MetroWest in which the future of the abandoned hulk was apparently never a serious consideration, the scope of the MSA request includes under #3 the item "new use options for the old buildings". Apparently those options didn't catch the attention of the BBJ, since the article didn't mention those suggested uses. Whatever they may be, if they exist at all, they won't have the civic importance of a court house which has been the quintessential center of American cities and towns for centuries, especially in the northeast.
In 1885, Baltimore City set out to build the most beautiful Courthouse in the country. Fifteen years, and $2.2 million later ($56 million adjusted for inflation), that goal was realized. On January 6, 1900, the Baltimore Sun reported that the City of Baltimore had built a “temple of justice, second to no other in the world.” The building, which is a magnificent exemplification of Renaissance Revival architecture, continues to stand as a monument to the progress of the great city of Baltimore, and to the importance of the rule of law. 
Historic image of the old Courthouse
In spite of Baltimore's rich architectural heritage, there are few buildings that ever set out to set such a high standard, namely to be the most beautiful in the country. That the result was a "temple of justice second to no other in the world" may have been local hyperbole by a reporter going a bit far just like that O'Malley slogan on Baltimore's park benches ("Baltimore the greatest city in America") but even and worn as the buildings are from heavy use over their 133 years of life, they still offer that same magnificence.
Today, this main building in the Baltimore City Circuit Court complex is referred to as the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse in honor of the local lawyer and nationally respected civil rights leader. Most of the original splendor of this massive building can still be enjoyed, including the granite foundation, marble facades, huge brass doors, mosaic tiled floors, mahogany paneling, two of the world’s most beautiful courtrooms, domed art skylights, gigantic marble columns, and beautifully painted murals. In addition, the Courthouse is home to one of the oldest private law libraries in the country, and to the Museum of Baltimore Legal History.(Baltimore Heritage)
Emphasizing the historic splendor of the buildings doesn't mean to deny that the role of court buildings in society has changed or that the grand old buildings are entirely beyond reproach when it comes to adjusting them to current societal needs. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has written a very cogent piece titled "Reinventing the Courthouse"  in which those changing needs are openly addressed. But the article by PPS is advocating for more civic integration and openness, not for less as in vacating civic icons in favor of a concrete fortress located at the edge of a downtown bypass and the terminus of an ill conceived highway to nowhere. There is hardly a city office complex that is so little engaged with the surrounding city as Metro Center West. This is not what PPS advocates in its piece about the future of courthouses:
We need a new way of looking at community institutions. Public buildings – including courts, as well as schools, government buildings, cultural institutions, theaters, hospitals, and many others – have become isolated, rather than integrated. Design, rather than place, has become the focus. We must explore how to help these institutions collaboratively become community anchors.
The Metro West complex at the terminus of the "highway to nowhere"
The thing is, Baltimore's two historic courthouses facing each other across Calvert Street and the Battle Monument Square are excellent examples of "place making". Or as Baltimore's historic landmark list puts it:
The courthouse and old post office echo one another’s scale and form a well-proportioned setting for the Battle Monument, by Maximilien Godefroy.
It doesn't matter much that the Courthouse East, the younger of the two was originally a post office and a federal court, both functions were removed in 1932 and reside today in 1970s structures that are universally considered as pretty awful. Nor does it matter that the Mitchell Courthouse of 1885 was the third courthouse in this location, showing that change has been permanent throughout the centuries.  It doesn't matter, because those historic upheavals prove that this area of the city has been the nexus of civic functions for a very long time. By no means does the volatile past justify to deplete the area of its civic heart altogether.

The 2011 report had reduced the number of redevelopment options of a 2003 study and had wisely assumed that a new building would be erected that was connected to the existing Courthouse East and include the continued use of the historic buildings. Thus the courthouse complex would have been enhanced and not dismantled.

The good news is, that even the most fabulous P3 will not easily come up with $400 million. What the BBJ brought to light has not been publicly vetted and apparently not even brought up to the attention of our Mayor. Since the article states that the State has no intention of funding the project and expects the City to come up with a solution for the cost, it can be predicted that the courts won't move in a hurry. Maybe they shouldn't move for good at all, and the currently empty MetroWest would be simply a temporary place where certain functions could be relocated while the historic buildings get fixed up, resolving the vexing problem of how comprehensive work could be performed inside an already crowded facility while it remains in full operation. Or one would go back to the thoughts of the 2011 study.
Metro West as seen from the southeast (Saratoga Street in foreground left)

Suggesting that Baltimore's main court complex should move for good is like the Catholic church relocating its headquarters from the Vatican to a newer, more modern part of Rome. Or housing the President in a new private residence with a lease-back option because the White House was built without HVAC and hard to adjust to the modern building codes and security concerns.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A vision is needed for Metro West

1 comment:

  1. As a historian of the city court, I would add that the city court has been sited here since the 18th century. This is the third courthouse. To relocate the courthouse, is a bigger change than erasing the bursts of the Mitchell courthouse.