JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – After another weekend of failed fire tests at the new Duval County Courthouse, Jacksonville and court officials could consider reopening the old Bay Street courthouse when they meet today.
“I have to be realistic. I don’t have a solution to the problem,” Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran said Sunday.
Hours earlier, courthouse builder Turner Construction suspended its latest effort to make smoke-control systems work throughout the 800,000-square-foot building.
Moran had resisted earlier suggestions to reactivate the old courthouse, which closed last month.
But he said his priority had to be ensuring that court cases, especially criminal cases, can proceed normally.
“We just have to get these cases moving again,” Moran said.
His courts have relied on a stopgap system of emergency hearings because the new building’s scheduled May 29 opening date passed without the building being ready to move in.
Earlier Sunday, a city spokeswoman, Aleizha Batson, said Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt suggested considering using the old courthouse, which opened in 1958.
Court officials have expressed concerns, noting that the building lacks fire protection such as sprinklers that are part of the new courthouse.
But the old building previously had a “grandfathered” approval for occupancy without the same level of fire protection.
As a new courthouse, the bigger structure still has to receive that approval. That has been stymied because of failed tests for controlling smoke in parts of the building, notably the atrium where the main entrance is located and the west wing of the building’s third floor.
In case the weekend tests went badly, city officials on Friday said they were considering a fallback approach that would involve permitting occupancy of most of the new building but delaying use of failed areas until they could pass all tests.
Senterfitt said Friday that “phased” approach could mean leaving places like the atrium, where security searches are supposed to be performed, only open to foot-traffic headed to the remainder of the building.
He said phased occupancy is used in construction of taller buildings, giving the example of allowing people to move into the first five stories of a building while construction continued on upper floors.
Using that approach for the seven-story courthouse would be less common, he acknowledged, because it would involve confining use of horizontal sections of an otherwise finished floor.
Finishing the new building could also be a slow process. One plan floated last week involved replacing 10,000 sprinkler heads, a task that Turner reportedly expected could last a month.
Moran said he would ask State Attorney Angela Corey and Public Defender Matt Shirk to join him in meeting city representatives this morning.
A senior prosecutor said the agency was less concerned with which courthouse would be used than that the courts ran normally.
As to the old structure, “we were there three weeks ago. We’ve been there for 50 years. We just want to get started,” said Assistant State Attorney John Guy, one of two directors of the agency’s homicide office.
The old courthouse has suffered some damage in the three weeks since it was vacated in mid-May, however. City officials acknowledged earlier that rats had entered the building through access points that had been left open during the move, and that there had been some broken glass.
Whatever option is chosen, Shirk said he wants to weigh the cost to taxpayers and believes Turner should absorb costs for extra work.
“When justice is delayed, the only person who really suffers is the taxpayer,” Shirk said.