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December 5, 2012

Plans to rejuvenate two city buildings under way

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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Plans to rejuvenate two city buildings under way
The Ferndale 43rd District Court, a former mattress outlet store that dates back to the 1930s, will soon be receiving some long-overdue upgrades following the City Council’s approval of a major renovation plan.

FERNDALE — The city is moving forward with a new project to renovate its out-of-date police station and district courthouse that will not require borrowing any money or spending any taxpayer dollars.

On Nov. 26, the City Council voted unanimously to allow city administration to proceed with plans to renovate the two dilapidated facilities, following presentations from Ferndale 43rd District Court Judge Joe Longo and Police Chief Tim Collins. Although the project is still only in its early phases, city officials all agreed that it is long overdue.

“I know these facilities well, and they are inadequate,” said Councilman Mike Lennon, a retired Ferndale police officer. “And they have been for a really long time.”

Added Councilman Dan Martin, “I think that we’ve kicked the can down the road as far as we can on a lot of these issues. So I think that what’s being asked for here seems measured and appropriate, and yet it also addresses the real needs that these buildings have to continue to be functional.”

According to Longo, 12 years ago, the City Council instructed court officials to take $20 out of every paid ticket and put it into a separate account to be used for funding new city facilities. Ferndale leaders have kept the account untouched since that time, and now it’s at a point where it’s large enough for them to make some significant improvements to the police station and courthouse.

City Manager April Lynch noted that the account is in line to have about $2 million to put toward the proposed renovations by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“But I want to be clear,” she said, “that this is not just a Band-Aid … but a true renovation that does take into consideration the (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility issues at the court and the safety issues that are very prevalent at the police station. And obviously, as we go through this process, if we find that it’s going to take more than ($2 million), then we can continue to put more money in the fund until we find that we have enough in there.”

‘A great mattress factory outlet’
As Longo explained, the building that houses the Ferndale 43rd District Court was constructed in the 1930s and started out as a commercial business. “It eventually became a mattress factory outlet, and as a court building, it’s a great mattress factory outlet,” he joked. The building was converted into a courthouse in 1971 and has served the city ever since.

However, the facility has always presented a number of challenges for court employees, and those challenges have only grown more severe over time. It suffers from a huge lack of storage space, a woefully undersized lobby area, an absence of private rooms for attorneys to meet with their clients, safety issues caused by the proximity of the front entrance to the courtroom, and numerous ADA violations.

The most egregious of these violations, Longo said, involves the bathrooms inside the courthouse. Because wheelchair users do not have enough space to make it into the bathroom stalls, court employees must actually lift them off their chairs and onto the toilets, and then back onto their chairs when they are finished.

In addition, the district court recently sustained damage from an auto accident in which a driver came up, over the curb, and collided with the building, taking off some of the wooden slats that cover the exterior.

“The reason why it looks so abandoned right now is that we are waiting to see what happens (with this project), rather than investing money in something that’s not going to stay,” Longo said. “We did have an architect come in to take a look at the building to make sure that it was OK, and we found that it was architecturally and structurally sound, but it was just functionally obsolete.”

‘Three times older’ than City Hall
The Ferndale Police Department is in equally poor shape. The facility was constructed in 1964 as part of the city’s municipal complex on East Nine Mile Road and has had no major renovations since then. According to Collins, the police section of the building has also experienced much greater wear and tear than the City Hall section of the building.

“Even though the complex itself is almost 50 years old, our portion of the building is at least three times older than that,” the chief said. “What I mean by that is that the City Hall portion is only used Monday through Friday (during) regular business hours, no holidays, no weekends, with very few exceptions. On the other hand, our portion of the building is fully staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

The main issues at the police station involve prisoner security and officer safety, Collins added. It lacks a sally port that can accommodate modern police cars, while prisoners are processed in view of the general public and are exposed to areas of the station that are open to non-sworn employees and visitors.

As Collins noted, “Due to fire code restrictions, prisoners are not truly secure in our facility until they are actually locked up in the cell. Although we don’t advertise how, there are ways that they could get into the civilian section of the building. … It would just be an invitation for an escaped prisoner to do whatever bad things you can imagine.”

The building also does not have any public restrooms or the infrastructure necessary to make technological improvements, and, like at the courthouse, there is a lack of storage space that has only worsened after 48 years of accumulating files, evidence and equipment. In addition, the heating and cooling system in the building is so poor that, in the winter, fans must be used to blow warm air toward the jail cells so that prisoners receive a sufficient amount of heat.

Not seeking any ‘pomp and circumstance’
While architectural details of the renovated police and court buildings still have to be determined, the $2 million in the city’s account will primarily be used to address these specific issues. According to Longo, it will allow the city to get about 20 years of additional use out of the existing courthouse.

“I want you to know that we don’t take this lightly,” he told the council. “We aren’t looking for lots of pomp and circumstance here, but we’re looking for something that the city can be proud of, and so that citizens who come into the courthouse can be accommodated with any disabilities that they might have.”

The plan also serves as a cheaper solution to one that Ferndale officials pursued a few years ago. In early 2010, the City Council opted to delay its three-years-in-the-making municipal complex project. That endeavor would have included the reconstruction or rehabilitation of the Ferndale 43rd District Court, Police Department and City Hall buildings at a cost of about $8 million. Later that year, city officials moved forward with a $447,000 renovation and reorganization of City Hall that functioned as a much less costly fix for that building.

The next step is for city leaders to meet with architects to further map out the new project, which Lynch stated will take at least a year to complete. For Mayor Dave Coulter, the obvious deficiencies of the police and court facilities, combined with the fact that the money has already been set aside, made approval of the plan a no-brainer.

“One of the things that strikes me is that both of those buildings, aesthetically, are a mess, but clearly the needs extend beyond the aesthetics,” he said. “When we have safety issues and ADA issues and the kinds of issues that we have, it’s time to address them. I appreciate the way that you brought this forward, so let’s see if we can figure something out.”

Councilwoman Melanie Piana pointed out that the city has been planning for this project for the last 12 years, and contended that now is the ideal time to pursue it.

“I think this is a really scaled-down version of what has been proposed in the past,” she said. “And I really think that we need to provide a safe and efficient place for our staff to work, which helps them provide efficient services to customers who use our facilities. … If we don’t do it, I guess we’re just continuing to increase the fund of $2 million, and we just have this same conversation again next year, and the pictures will all be the same, or worse. So I guess the question is, ‘Is this the right time to do this?’ And I feel very strongly that it is.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.