Courting Disaster?

An architectural marvel rife with flaws.
Deron Neblett

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."

"The basic premise that they started out with was a good idea, and that was to put all the district and county criminal courts in one building, and put the D.A.'s in the same building," says Rawlings.

"In theory that was a good idea, because you didn't have to run to different buildings to get to courts," Rawlings says. "The problem is, they had to know the density of traffic of people going in and out of the various criminal buildings, versus when they had them spaced out in different buildings."

The former criminal courthouse, two blocks away, relied heavily on public stairwells to move the crush of attorneys and court support personnel among the courtroom floors. But the focus on security doesn't allow that in the new building. Many of the stairs lead to back entrances to offices, which are off-limits to the public.

Resulting delays have played havoc with the system. Defendants late to court are having their bonds revoked by unsympathetic judges. Just ask Houston attorney Herschel Cashin, whose client found himself on the wrong end of a judge's patience.

"[My client] was caught in the elevators, had his bond revoked and was sent to jail," says Cashin. "It's very heartbreaking in that you have a defendant that is trying to do the right thing on the one hand, and on the other you have a system that is not ready to cooperate."

One judge who won't tolerate tardiness is state District Judge George Godwin, the administrative judicial chief for the criminal courts. Defendants who are even five minutes late to Godwin's court have to suffer the consequences.

"I revoke bonds for people who show up late," Godwin says. "The elevator was a good excuse for the first few days. I don't think it any longer is. Everybody else gets down here on time. [Defendants] can, too."

A representative of Gilbane Building Co., one of the contractors for the project, declined to comment and referred questions to Jack Thompson, the district courts administrator.

Thompson says visitors have to adopt a different modus operandi at the new courthouse. At least for now, he says, it's all about transition.

"People may have to pace themselves differently than they did at the old building," Thompson says. "I frequently go downstairs to the lobby, and [traffic] moves down there. It's congested sometimes, but it's not gridlocked like the Katy Freeway."

Beyond the metal detectors and elevators, however, is yet another set of problems that county officials are ironing out on a case-by-case basis.

In the adjoining area for at least one court, employees had to place a piece of cardboard over the glass opening of the men's holdover cell after a male defendant exposed himself to a female passerby.

"There were sight lines between the men's and women's holdovers, and boys being boys and girls being girls, there were incidents," says Godwin. "So we have taken steps to make sure those sight lines don't exist. I have heard of cardboard being used, windows being painted, partitions being put in there between the windows," he adds. Also, odors invaded courtrooms in the early going, wafting out from the holdover cells. Officials explained that the computerized security system automatically locked cell doors after regular courthouse hours, preventing janitors from cleaning the cell areas. In some other situations, attorneys have had to use their cell phones to call guards to come to the remote cells to release them after talking with clients.

Godwin, however, says he doesn't understand some of the complaints, especially when they're easily correctable with a little common sense. If witness chairs are too high, he says, the solution is for witnesses to simply adjust them. He says the front rows of jury boxes are lower because they're wheelchair-accessible. If front-row jurors can't see the proceedings, Godwin says, they just need to change places with a juror on a rear row.

At the crux of the issue, Godwin says, is the natural aversion to change.

"Most of the problems are the result of the fact that things have changed, and change is always painful," he says. "People will either get used to the change and carry on with what they're supposed to do, or they'll complain."  

It should be noted that, unlike in the old courthouse, judges no longer have to rely on public access to their courts. They now have their own elevator.

The firm of Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville Inc., which did planning for the criminal courthouse, has a new project: the 15-story county civil courthouse. As for the criminal judges, they are expected to take up an emergency issue at their meeting next month: allowing attorneys to use the private stairways.

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