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The new justice complex

It’s a big deal.

hall_of_justice

Houston leaders are in the early stages of planning a new police headquarters and courthouse complex that Mayor Annise Parker said could be the most important project on which she will work during her six-year tenure.

There is little question the city’s criminal justice facilities are fading. Houston’s central jail at 61 Riesner, the largest of five buildings that make up the justice complex northwest of downtown, is 62 years old.

The 18-acre plot is home to 1,000 Houston Police Department staff, a courthouse with 10 courtrooms, the jail and other operations.

A city study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs; Parker noted there is a sinkhole under the courthouse caused by a burst sewer pipe. Officials say police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work, is too small and is more office building than police command center. That building would be sold and consolidated into the new justice complex.

“It’s hugely important,” Parker said. “It may not be the largest, but I think it may be the most important, not because of the size of the dollars but because of what it’s taken to get to this point.”

The new complex will not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last month of a joint city-county inmate processing center. That decision was preceded by the city opening a sobering center to divert inebriates from city lockups and by police and court staff deciding to retain their downtown headquarters.

A key question is whether to build the complex the traditional way, whereby the city issues bonds, hires designers and contractors, then owns and maintains the finished buildings, or whether to pursue a public-private partnership, or so-called “P3,” by which the city, essentially, would pay rent to a private firm hired to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the facilities.

Ownership would revert to the city after a negotiated period, typically 30 to 50 years.

Is it wrong that I want this thing to be named the Hall of Justice? Because if it is, I don’t want to be right. We won’t begin to receive proposals till March, where it will be located and how we will pay for it are unclear, and we may not break ground until 2016. I expect we’ll hear a lot more about this over the next two years.

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