Courting Disaster?

Some woes aren't going away at the county's new criminal justice center

During the lengthy planning process for the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, one senior judge winced when he heard designers tell about how visitors would rely entirely on elevators for getting around in the building.

The judge noted the heavy volume of traffic expected, especially in the 15 courts handling the mountains of misdemeanor cases generated annually. "Wouldn't escalators be quicker?" he asked.

Design team leaders shook their heads, as if they were dealing with architectural Neanderthals. Elevators, they said, would be waiting with open doors -- every 30 seconds -- to whisk the public up through the entire 20 floors of the building. With that kind of efficiency, who'd need escalators? Why bother even with stairs for the public?

"They were supposed to know what they were talking about," says the judge, who asked that his name not be used. "Who was I to disagree?"

And who dares dispute the results? The center formally opened on January 10 -- to waits of up to an hour for elevators down to the lobby. Often those elevators would arrive with no space available, jammed to the hilt with unhappy riders trying to transfer to another set of floors high in the building.

Reporters mentioned the gripes, dismissed by county officials as mere "glitches" and part of the normal shakedown period for any new building. Then the news media moved on to other subjects. But many of the problems have yet to exit the courthouse. In fact, new and seemingly dangerous ones have been added to the list.

Wall paneling fell to the floor in at least one courtroom. And weightier woes tumbled downward early this month. Lightning struck the top of the building, hardly a unique occurrence for stormy Houston. But the lightning rods didn't do the job of deflecting the force. Instead, chunks of concrete were torn from the structure's top and rained down, ripping holes in a seventh-story roof. Had that happened on the building front during daytime hours, there could have been human casualties.

The primary contractor, Manhattan Construction Co., repaired the lightning damage on the $98 million structure. But critics say other flaws can never be corrected.

Haste hardly played a role in the planning or construction. Voters approved bonds for the construction back in 1993. Campaigners for the bond election argued that a criminal justice center was badly needed to replace an overcrowded courthouse and to consolidate courts annexes and support agency offices that were spread over seven buildings downtown.

Little was done on the project until 1995. County officials voiced optimism that it still would be built by the then-target date, mid-1998. It was finally finished as a gleaming high-tech monument, complete with state-of-the-art security systems and computerized operations. But talk to some of the visitors who frequent the shiny building with any regularity, and another picture emerges, of an architectural marvel rife with flaws.

Concerns were obvious when the move-in began. Some furniture was too large for the offices. Witnesses' chairs were so tall that those taking the stand seemed to be in high chairs. The front-row seats in jury boxes were so low that jurors had trouble seeing over the railing. Attorneys' tables took up too much courtroom space. Thanks to glass windows on the front of holdover cells, male defendants even exposed themselves to unwitting observers. Fire inspectors ordered that the manual alarm switches be moved closer to exits. Even now, some attorneys have wheeled handicapped visitors down the bumpy front stairs, because the access ramp is unmarked and unnoticeable by many who frequent the front doors.

By far the biggest beef, most agree, is the elevator service, even though it has improved somewhat since the disaster of the initial days. Problems are compounded because half of the 12 elevators go from the basement to the tenth floor, while the others go from 11 through 20.

"If you've got to go from the seventh to the 12th, you've got to get out at the tenth, then switch over to get to the 12th floor," says Houston attorney Clay Rawlings. "Or you gotta go down to the first, then make it to the elevators to get to the 12th."

The elevator problem has even found its way to the courthouse joke circuit, the county's top prosecutor admits. District Attorney Johnny Holmes told the real story of the man with a sawed-off shotgun and handgun who entered the building on February 10, wanting to see Sheriff Tommy Thomas. But with the packed elevators, "he couldn't even get up to [the other] floors," Holmes says. (A deputy constable disarmed the gunman without incident.)

"The design flaw, if there is one, is that [visitors] can't move fast enough to where they need to be," Holmes says of the elevators. "Other than that, my perception is that everything is going to work out fine. It's a helluva lot better than what we've had, and I think most of the problems can be corrected."

Defense attorney Robert Kangun says it is apparent that planners used regular high-rise traffic flow data, rather than considering the unique needs of a criminal justice facility. "These world-class elevator designers must have relied on experiences with typical office buildings -- and never gave much thought to how a courthouse operates differently," Kangun says. "This is a disgrace."

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