For nearly a century, an air of urgency has driven the planning and construction of new justice and detention facilities in Cuyahoga County. Over-burdened facilities, over-budget plans, over-extended time frames, and a criminal justice system in dire need of reform have often driven the decision making process. Today’s Justice Center Complex is no exception to this way of planning, with myriad correctional and humanitarian issues that must be addressed or at least acknowledged by any new construction.
In addressing the jail’s humanitarian crisis, we should not overlook the public accessibility of new or renovated justice and detention facilities. The buildings will be accessed and used by thousands of citizens who are disabled, who are children, who are elderly, and who may walk or use public transit and bicycles to attend hearings or visit relatives. Inmates with disabilities will need accommodations for their conditions. The equitable administration of justice demands that the buildings be pedestrian friendly, convenient to public transportation, and meet the needs of disabled citizens who visit, work, or are incarcerated.
The concept of “complete streets” envisions a built environment that promotes pedestrian, transit, and bike access, equalizing those transit modes with the usage of cars. Cuyahoga County’s Planning Department has developed a Complete Streets Toolkit, and the City of Cleveland has released a Complete Streets Typologies Plan. Both documents address issues such as setbacks, parking, and building access, and should be relied upon in developing an architectural plan that integrates well with the ways people travel to and from court.
The Ohio Building Code and the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have comprehensive regulations on accessibility for pedestrians and disabled users. The Ohio Administrative Code touched on this matter, but its sections were repealed in 2007 and superseded by revisions to the Building Code. The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also protect prisoners and create causes of action for enforcement. However, new development can adhere to the minimum requirements of the ADA and the Building Code while still neglecting inmates and focusing on employees and visitors who arrive in cars. Maintaining and improving upon the current state of affairs, and going beyond the bare regulatory accessibility requirements should be the goal of any renovation or new construction.
Ironically for a city and region that have seen so much disinvestment and out- migration from downtown, county offices are subject to displacement pressure from private capital seeking to establish The Mall as a tourist destination. In 2014 Cuyahoga County removed several county offices from the corner of Ontario and Lakeside to build a hotel. Those offices were consolidated with other county functions at the corner of E. 9th and Prospect. In 2011 the Juvenile Justice Center departed Downtown’s edge at E. 22nd for E. 93rd and Quincy.
Both of these new county facilities are happily convenient to public transit and accessible by pedestrians. And County Council is currently supportive of a new Downtown Justice Center. Easing the ability of people to arrive at court on public transit or under their own power can reduce penalties and fines those citizens may face. Doing the same for visitors of inmates creates a more humane jail that may help societal reintegration for the incarcerated.
But other county services (such as the library) have located new public buildings in places that downgrade access to people without cars. The County also maintains satellite detention facilities in Euclid and Bedford. Cleveland’s size, notoriety, centralized location, and infrastructure should foreclose the possibility of the Justice Center’s out-migration, but the Revised Code authorizes county residents to petition the General Assembly to relocate a County Seat. While such an ill-advised scenario might seem impossible, it is fundamentally a political question that could be opened at any time.
The Revised Code contemplates accessibility in Chapter 301 when it lays out the process for locating or relocating County Seats. The term “County Seat” refers to the Seat of Justice, specifically, the location of the General Division of the County Court of Common Pleas. When new Ohio counties are formed, commissioners “shall proceed to examine and select the most proper place as a seat of justice, as near the center of the county as possible, having regard to the situation, extent of population, quality of land, and the convenience and interest of the inhabitants.” In reality there is a wide range of discretion given to applying these considerations, nor do they apply to other county offices or facilities. For example, a long simmering dispute in Geauga County has seen the county commissioners move and seek to move a steady stream of county offices from the county seat of Chardon to a rural road near Geauga Hospital. Against the wishes of the local Bar, Geauga County has also developed nascent plans to abandon the historic Court House on Chardon Square. A new Courthouse would be constructed on county-owned property at the very southern edge of the City of Chardon. The Geauga County Jail has been located far outside the county seat for a long time.
While the new locations are indeed more central to the county, they are not in any sense contained within a community. Without adjacent housing or infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists, Geauga County’s office, detention and planned justice facilities foreclose practical accessibility for any citizen without a car. The new locations reduce the ability of citizens to participate in their government and receive services.
The anti-urban mistakes made by Geauga County should be avoided in Cuyahoga County. So long as Cleveland’s public transit and budding bike infrastructure are organized in a hub-and-spoke arrangement centering on Downtown, practically any other location will downgrade public accessibility of the facilities. Spending money on new infrastructure to move out of Downtown could add millions of dollars to the price tag of the buildings. Accordingly, plans should focus on whether the current Justice Center parcel can be renovated or rebuilt in stages in the same place.
Franklin County, home to the City of Columbus, faced a similar problem 15 years ago. The Franklin County Court was located in a 27-story office tower that was ill-suited and outdated as soon as it was occupied in the early 1990s. However, the Franklin County office complex was built on the less-dense southern edge of Columbus’s downtown, as opposed to the Cuyahoga County Justice Complex’s centralized location. The lower density allowed Franklin County to build a new 10-story courthouse in 2010 on a surface parking lot directly adjacent to the existing building, with no practical impact on accessibility. The old building was then renovated and repurposed for other county uses.
If a new parcel is required, Cuyahoga County could thus look to the many surface parking lots in the adjacent Warehouse District, which are for all practical purposes just as accessible as its current location. Demolishing portions of the Shoreway or Innerbelt could also produce significant usable land Downtown, but at a political and monetary cost that would probably be prohibitive at this time.
Finally, the climate crisis will demand significant changes in our society within the lifetimes of many of our bar members. A new or renovated Justice Center Complex needs to be accessible for pedestrians and transit riders in order to reduce our region’s reliance on automobiles, make our region more sustainable, and prepare our community for what’s to come.
Matt Rolf is a real estate lawyer with interests in equitable urban planning and transit oriented development. Recently he has advocated for public transit funding and new pedestrian and bike infrastructure in Northeast Ohio. He passed the bar in 2002, and has offices on Shaker Square and Chardon Square. He has been a CMBA member since 2013. He can be reached at (440) 286-9549 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @m_rolf_.