Unprecedented infusion of capital into court facilities provides extreme makeover for aging, run-down buildings

Issue January 2008 By Bill Archambeault

By any measure, the state’s court buildings were in bad shape after years of aging and neglect. The Massachusetts Bar Association even compiled a series of Lawyers Journal articles showcasing the run-down condition of numerous court facilities in a 1998 publication matter-of-factly called “Massachusetts’ Courthouses of Shame.”

The condition of many of the state’s courthouses were deplorable.

There was the Middlesex Probate and Family Court in Cambridge, which had just one elevator for 5,000 weekly visitors, no hot water in most of the building, a flea infestation, outdated electrical wiring and a chief probation officer’s “office” that included books, records and a toilet crammed together in a tiny space.

The Worcester District Court had one courtroom closed because of an overwhelming stench, while another was plagued by the cooing of pigeons nestled in the walls and ceiling.

A records room in the basement of Norfolk County Probate and Family Court contained an open pit of what staff believed to be raw sewage.

There was no shortage of dirty, inconvenient, even hazardous conditions, let alone pervasive problems of extreme overcrowding in everything from holding cells to offices to records rooms to conference areas. Modern technology — even in buildings equipped with the wiring to handle it — was scarce. Building designs that took into account handicapped access and modern security concerns were also in short supply.

But nearly a decade later, much has changed. The physical structure of the state’s justice system has undergone extensive reconstructive surgery, and the infusion of state funds continues with a host of projects that will run through at least 2011.

“There’s been a steady progress over the last decade or more in improving the court facilities,” said Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan. “There’s been a real effort to upgrade the facilities.”

Massachusetts prioritizes court buildings

In addition to the recently completed Plymouth Trial Court and the Worcester Trial Court, there are six major court projects underway, in Cambridge, Fall River, Lowell, Salem, Taunton and Woburn. In the last 10 years, $955 million in state money has been authorized for court projects. The bulk of it came from Chapter 189, which in 1998 authorized $730.3 million for court projects and essentially launched the long-delayed reconstruction of the state’s halls of justice.

Over the last 20 years, 18 completed projects cost more than $750 million, ranging from the East Cambridge Trial Court renovation for $5.8 million to the $151 million John Adams Courthouse renovation and the $180 million new Worcester Trial Court. Those amounts don’t include nearly $90 million spent on miscellaneous, smaller projects.

“If you consider what we’ve accomplished in the last 10 to 12 years, it’s really amazing,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan and David B. Perini, commissioner of the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management, have worked in collaboration to steer the planning and construction of new courthouses, the refurbishment of aging but still-useful buildings and the leasing of temporary spaces while new buildings are constructed. It’s a monumental engineering undertaking, with DCAM’s Court Facilities Unit overseeing roughly $150 million being spent each year on new construction and renovation.
As a result, Mulligan says, the state’s courts run the gamut, from those in “excellent condition” to “serviceable and functional” to “needing improvement” to “very poor.”

In addition to years of neglect and deferred maintenance, many of the state’s court buildings are simply too old and small to meet the needs of today’s justice system.

“They’re quite old facilities,” Perini said of some courthouses. “They were certainly built at a time when caseloads were much different. Part of the issue is simply that the courts were built for a different time, different security needs, different caseloads. It’s amazing to me, what people make do with.”

Since the Monan Report ushered in a new era in Massachusetts’ legal system five years ago, Mulligan has been busy overseeing a top-to-bottom reworking of the management of the Trial Court Department. But in addition to implementing firm and fair trial scheduling, time standards, electronic information systems and evaluating judges, Mulligan has also been pressed into something of an engineer’s and planner’s role to address the physical shortcomings of the state’s justice system.

Despite such trying conditions, Mulligan said the quality of justice has not suffered, which he credited to the efforts and perseverance of judges and court employees across the state.

Still, he’s thrilled to see new court facilities opening after having persevered through cramped, sometimes decrepit buildings for years.

“There are just a myriad of challenges that the old facilities present, even the ones that are well maintained,” he said.

A new generation of courthouses

Today, Massachusetts courthouses are undergoing a remarkable renaissance. Headlines decrying intolerable working conditions because of overcrowding, broken elevators and air pollution still crop up. But more and more, Mulligan is seen standing beside smiling judges, state legislators and local officials at groundbreaking and courthouse opening ceremonies, and he’s able to tout the opening of distinguished-looking buildings with spacious, gleaming interiors, modern safety and security features and ample office and conference space.

While judges, court staff and the public have had to make do with substandard facilities for years, the arrival of new buildings promises a different kind of courthouse experience.

This past fall, the new Worcester Trial Court opened, a $180 million, 429,000-square-foot facility that incorporates the District, Housing, Juvenile, Probate and Family and Superior courts. It houses the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office and has 26 courtrooms, conference rooms, jury deliberation rooms and a grand jury room. It features new information technology and digital audio recording systems, secure detention areas, handicapped accessibility — even a café. It also boasts natural light through large pane glass windows and a centerpiece spiral staircase.

At the opening ceremony, Massachusetts House of Representatives Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said, “Today’s opening of the Worcester Trial Court marks the realization of years of hard work to replace court buildings dating to before the Civil War. The importance of this project cannot be overstated and was never lost on the members of the House of Representatives — in assisting with the administration of justice, in helping revitalize the downtown area and improving the quality of life for the region.”

The state’s newest courts are even beginning to incorporate environmentally friendly design elements that will ultimately reduce operating costs.

The fall also saw the groundbreaking for the $85 million, 145,000-square-foot Fall River Trial Court, a milestone in courthouse construction in Massachusetts. It will become the first courthouse in the state to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accreditation to earn the distinction of being the first “green” courthouse in Massachusetts. (See related article on page 9.)

Features will include high-efficiency lighting that maximizes natural light and efficient mechanical and electrical systems. The five-story, 150,000-square-foot building, which will house the Fall River District Court and Bristol County Superior Court’s criminal sessions, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2009 with the expectation that it will serve as a beacon for the future of the state’s halls of justice.

A relative windfall from the state

For the last 10 years, the courts have enjoyed the privilege of being the state’s capital funding priority. Given how aged, poorly maintained and outdated many of the courthouses were, an infusion of capital seemed long overdue. But even with the tremendous amount spent in the last decade, and the hundreds of millions of dollars tied to projects now underway, there is concern that financing could dry up, or be diverted to new priorities.

DCAM is devoting about 32 percent of its capital funding in courthouses or court-related facilities — more than for education, public safety or any other segment of state government.

“We have been more or less tracking these priorities and ticking them off as we went. The focus on courts during this period of time has been unlike any other client that we serve,” Perini said, noting that previously, corrections facilities received the largest share. “When that tapered off, the courts stepped in for the last 10 years.”

The emphasis on court projects has not gone unnoticed in the building and design industry. While new court projects can’t compete with the volume of new commercial projects, it’s still a market segment that has attracted attention.

Andrea Leers, principal and cofounder of Boston-based design firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates, noted the increased demand for courthouse design in Massachusetts. Leers Weinzapfel designed the $86 million Taunton Trial Court complex scheduled for completion in late 2010 and previously designed the Fenton Judicial Center in Lawrence, as well as the U.S. District Court in Worcester.

“There’s certainly been a very active round of courthouse building right now. That’s quite an active program,” she said. “It’s true that the cycle of courthouse buildings is infrequent. The last big cycle was in the 1930s. There was some in the 1960s, too, but this cycle really began in the 1990s, and it’s been pretty sustained the whole time, because of the age of the facilities, an increase in caseload, the heightened need for security, and an increased need for accessibility and interest in sustainable design.”

While demand for new courthouses has been unusually high and can be a significant source of income for a firm, she said, a somewhat steady stream of opportunities is not why firms seek out court projects.

“I don’t think it’s the volume alone that attracts architects to do courthouses, it’s the opportunity to do important public buildings,” Leers said. “I personally find the design of courthouses very exciting. It’s one of the foundation buildings of any community, and that’s the real opportunity there. Public projects are full of the push and pull of public life. That’s inescapable. The fact that a number are being built in the last several years also makes it an attractive area to look to.”

Michael H. Pascavage, chairman of Cummings Properties LLC, in Woburn, agreed that while it’s always nice to land a large contract, the prestige of working on a significant public building accounts for much of the appeal of bidding on court projects. Cummings Properties, a real estate development and management company, is building the 150,000-square-foot Middlesex Superior Courthouse at Trade Center Park in Woburn. The state will lease space in the new building for at least three years while the Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge is renovated.

Cummings Properties’ Vice President Ernest N. Agresti Jr. has noticed an unusually high volume, with court-related projects accounting for more than half of the recent listings in DCAM’s requests for proposals for leased space.

“There certainly is a lot of activity out there,” Agresti said.

Court construction on the horizon

Despite the generous amount being spent on court construction and renovation, there is concern that the state’s priorities will shift, leaving the long remaining list of courthouses in need of replacement or major renovation at the end of the line again.

In less than 10 years, Massachusetts has devoted nearly $1 billion to upgrading its court facilities. Yet, even with that tremendous capital infusion, Perini estimates the job may be only 50 percent to 60 percent complete.

After the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota this past August killed several people and defects in support beams were found in Boston’s Longfellow Bridge, Mulligan said he started worrying that courthouse projects would be pushed aside in favor of other pressing needs.

 “When I hear about cracks on the Longfellow Bridge, I wonder how that’s going to affect us,” he said. “Of course I’m concerned. The courts are a part of the infrastructure of our society.”

Despite worries about tapping into limited state funds, Mulligan acknowledges that the courts “have a great working relationship with the Division of Capital and Asset Management. We’ve faced some sticky issues together and have managed to work things out.”

Perini said he doesn’t know how long funding will continue at this pace, but improving the state’s courts continues to be a priority of Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, as indicated by his filing in early January of a $2.5 billion bond bill.

The bill, which is part of the administration’s five-year, $12 billion capital investment plan, includes $500 million for a new courthouse in Lowell, renovations to courts in Greenfield, Taunton and Salem, and the completion of a master plan for Norfolk County court facilities in Dedham.

The administration is committed to continuing court-related capital projects beyond the ones that are already funded, Perini said.

“They’re underway now and will run through 2011,” Perini said before the new bond bill was filed.

“We’ve got four more years of major court construction.”

The Patrick Administration said the new bond bill will fit within the state’s acceptable level of debt service, but even projects considered necessary don’t always get funded.

“Capital spending is not unlimited,” Perini said.

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