Local view: Save old jail, save millions in tax dollarsSt. Louis County recently reapplied for a permit to demolish the historic St. Louis County Jail and extended its contract with a real estate agent to April 30, 2010, to sell the jail. This delay creates an opportunity to save taxpayers literally millions of dollars.
By: Tony Dierckins, For the News Tribune
St. Louis County recently reapplied for a permit to demolish the historic St. Louis County Jail and extended its contract with a real estate agent to April 30, 2010, to sell the jail. This delay creates an opportunity to save taxpayers literally millions of dollars. And it doesn’t matter if you believe in preserving Duluth’s heritage or couldn’t care less about old buildings: It just plain makes fiscal common sense to retain the old jail.
Despite the abundance of misinformation circulating about the building’s condition, particularly the argument that the cells hold it up, reuse studies have found the structure sound. In fact, any successful renovation to adapt the building’s interior for reuse would involve removing the existing interior, including the cells, to essentially construct a new building within the existing façade.
There are many examples of this type of renovation, including Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Jail, constructed in the same manner as our old jail. It was gutted in 2002 and adapted to create additional courtrooms.
According to Philip Waugh of Minneapolis’s Collaborative Design Group, the cost of adapting for reuse the old jail in downtown Duluth would run between $7 million and $9 million. If exterior work stayed within national-preservation guidelines, federal tax credits of
20 percent could reduce that cost by $1.4 million to $1.8 million.
I understand the county has no interest in retaining the building; I don’t fault officials for that. I do have a problem with their plans for the building. They want to demolish it to create about 40 temporary — yes, temporary — parking spaces for county employees. The county has no actual plan for the site beyond that but claims about 100 of its employees need parking.
The old jail does not have to be destroyed to create permanent parking spaces. According to a 1999 Minnesota Historical Society reuse study, the county-owned parking ramp behind the courthouse (connected via skywalk) was designed to be increased by at least one level. Doing this would not only create about 50 permanent parking spaces but would cost less than demolishing the jail building to create temporary spaces. The study showed the additional spaces could bring in another $1,400 a month in revenue (about $1,800 in today’s dollars).
That same study indicated that an unused area west of the ramp could be developed into another parking lot, perhaps a ramp, with at least 70 additional parking spaces — and revenue for the lot’s owner. That would bring the total number of new spaces to 120, more than enough for the county employees now on a waiting list for parking.
Meanwhile, Duluth has unveiled plans to build an $18 million police station between Arlington Avenue and Rice Lake Road. I understand we need a new station; we have outgrown the old one in City Hall. But I don’t understand why we would want our main police station so far from the center of the city and other government service buildings.
The new police station could be built instead right inside the old jail, since the county has no use for it.
The county has offered the city the old jail for $1.
If the city used federal tax credits, it could create its new police station for between $5.6 million and $7.2 million, saving between $12.4 million and $10.2 million. The city could do myriad things with that money, including outfitting the new police station with modern equipment, building several substations in other parts of the city, or hiring more police officers and firefighters.
But what about parking adjacent to the building for the police department? After renovation, the existing, historically insignificant addition to the west of the old jail would be unnecessary. It could be removed to create an outdoor parking lot, perhaps even a ramp. Additionally, a portion of the new parking facility proposed above could be set aside for Duluth police.
Any idea that could save taxpayers more than $10 million should be considered, but to date neither the city nor the county has given this one serious thought. Our elected officials must do the fiscally prudent thing and propose that Duluth and St. Louis County sincerely and openly investigate this idea’s feasibility. Failing to do so would be an insult to taxpaying constituents.
Tony Dierckins of Duluth is the author of “Crossing the Canal: An Illustrated History of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge.”