By Kevin Deutsch
When former New York Attorney General and City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell first called for an investigation into the Bronx Hall of Justice, George W. Bush was President, Michael Bloomberg was Mayor, and Ritchie Torres—now head of the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Committee—was still a teenager.
The year was 2007 and, despite Koppell’s influence, his pleas that the city probe the troubled courthouse fell on deaf ears.
“It was scandalous,” Koppell said in a phone interview from his law office Monday. “There were terrible defects in the building. I remember the garage was falling down, there were serious problems with the climate controls. It was amazing.”
“There’s no doubt there was at least incompetence, if not criminal behavior,” the ex-councilman said.
Now, thanks to Torres, taxpayers will get the chance to find out.
Responding to a Bronx Justice News investigation in April revealing years of government waste, infrastructure problems, and delays at the Hall of Justice, Torres last week announced a referral to the Department of Investigation—a move that triggers an official probe under city law.
“The public has a right to know why….hundreds of millions of their tax dollars has been so badly spent, and why this massive complex was so poorly planned and so poorly constructed,” Torres told reporters at a press conference in front of the building’s still-shuttered civic plaza.
Torres’ committee has jurisdiction over DOI.
A litany of issues have plagued the postmodernist building on East 161st Street. Among them: over $100 million in cost overruns, a three year delay in opening its doors, and a host of lawsuits over “defects and delays” at the property involving more than 30 parties, from architects and engineers to construction contractors and state agencies.
The lowest-bidding contractor on the project was disqualified for suspected mob ties, and issues have been piling up ever since. Among them: a structurally compromised, underground parking garage inspectors once said was in danger of collapse; supposedly bomb and bullet-proof glass panels that routinely break; roof and sewage leaks, flooding, mold, power outages, a mice infestation, broken elevators and escalators; and a sprawling civic plaza that remains closed to the public 11 years after the courthouse opened.
A construction worker was killed in a fall on the property, and a 75-foot canopy at the courthouse’s entrance removed after inspectors deemed it unstable. The initial inspectors who improperly signed off on the canopy work—Long Island-based Materials Testing Lab—were not certified to perform the work, officials said at the time.
A multi-year, $40 million project is now underway to fix various problems in the building.
Koppell said it was about time the city probe the nearly 800,000 square-foot property, one of the largest courthouse’s in the nation.
“I’m glad it’s being followed up,” he said. “It’s been so many years. It’s a shame, a lot of money went into that building.”
Exactly how much, however, remains a mystery.
While officials estimated construction costs at $421 million when the courthouse opened, no precise, official figure has been publicly released. The construction manager who completed the building, Hill International, put the project’s value at $450 million. Genesys Engineering, another company involved in building the courthouse, put it at $700 million.
The state Dormitory Authority last week declined to make public the amount of taxpayer funds spent to construct the Hall of Justice, including expenditures on the civic plaza and the court’s rooftop rock garden, which also remains closed to visitors.
In response, Bronx Justice News submitted a Freedom of Information Law request Wednesday afternoon. Under state law, the agency has five business days from the submission date to respond.
“There’s no question that this project was not properly supervised,” Koppell said, adding that, after so much time, he was “skeptical” as to whether investigators could get a full picture of what went wrong.
“But I’m certainly pleased that the matter is at least being looked at,” he said.