By Kevin Deutsch
The state Dormitory Authority spent more than $400 million in taxpayer dollars to construct the troubled Bronx Hall of Justice, but says it doesn’t know how much of that amount went toward building the property’s civic plaza—a sprawling, unused space that remains closed eleven years after its slated opening date.
Design problems and public safety concerns have kept the outdoor plaza from opening at the courthouse on East 161st Street, despite millions in ongoing expenditures. Conceived as a symbol of transparency and connectedness with the surrounding community, the plaza-cum-courtyard has instead come to represent a legacy of government waste, poor planning, and infrastructure problems at the property—one of the most expensive taxpayer-funded projects ever completed in the borough.
In response to a Freedom of Information Law filing by Bronx Justice News last month, DASNY—the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York—said on Tuesday it could not locate any records showing how much it spent to design and build the civic plaza, despite their having paid more than two dozen contractors to construct the Hall of Justice.
Nor could the agency say how many taxpayer dollars went toward building the property’s rooftop rock garden, which also remains shuttered more than a decade after the courthouse opened.
“DASNY does not possess records in our existing record-keeping and retrieval systems, that are responsive to your request for the total dollar amount specifically spent to design and construct the courtyard/outdoor civic plaza and the total dollar amount spent to design and construct the rooftop rock garden,” Michael Johnson, Assistant General Counsel for the Dormitory Authority, wrote in a FOIL response letter.
Neither Johnson, DASNY spokespersons, nor any other agency officials responded to e-mailed questions about how expenditures were tracked during the project—if at all—and why records reflecting those costs weren’t retained.
A Bronx Justice News investigation in April revealed years of waste and delays at the Hall of Justice, the overall cost of which also remains a mystery. While state officials estimated total design and building costs at about $421 million when the courthouse opened, their FOIL response Tuesday cited the agency’s 2007 Annual Report, which put the project’s cost at about $401 million.
And that’s just one of several dollar totals provided by various groups involved in the project.
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 Hall of Justice is owned and maintained by the city, with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services responsible for day-to-day facilities management. The project’s construction was overseen by the Dormitory Authority. And the city’s Department of Design and Construction is overseeing an ongoing $40 million renovation project to address a host of infrastructure problems at the building, including lack of waterproofing in the courtyard.
Among them: issues with the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, as well as “conditions that are causing interior glass to break, removal and replacement of defective paint, repair of damaged ductwork in the garage area, and rehabbing of the building’s sewer line and plumbing vent line,” a DDC spokesman recently said.
Construction on the courthouse ran three years behind schedule and $100 million over budget. The lowest-bidding contractor was disqualified because of suspected mob ties, and testing revealed soil at at the construction site to be contaminated with oil, spurring cost overruns and delays.
Just a few years after opening, the Hall of Justice was already involved in a host of lawsuit claims involving more than 30 parties, from government agencies and builders to engineers and contractors. The Dormitory Authority paid out millions of dollars in settlement money, and also recouped some in judgements, records show.
The problems with the courthouse didn’t end there: a construction worker pouring concrete at the construction site was killed, the building’s supposedly bomb-proof glass panels were regularly damaged, and a 75-foot canopy at the courthouse’s entrance was removed after inspectors deemed it unstable. The initial inspectors who improperly signed off on the canopy work were not certified, officials said at the time.
The matter was referred to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2007, but no charges were ever brought.
The late-2000s saw more problems: Roof leaks, flooding, mold, power outages, and broken elevators and escalators.
The project’s construction manager, Bovis Lend Lease, used numerous contractors at the site. The company, one of the world’s largest construction firms, admitted to a massive over billing scheme on New York projects in 2012–including the Hall of Justice. They were hit with $56 million in fines and restitution fees as a result.
Far from the idyllic civic plaza DCAS assured the public would be open by the end of 2009–complete with evergreen trees, a pedestrian walkway, and outdoor seating—the plaza in April remained a desolate, garbage-strewn construction site, much of it covered in tarp and dust.
Responding to Bronx Justice News’ findings, City Councilman Ritchie Torres’ last month announced a two-pronged plan for getting answers about how, and why, so much has gone wrong at the courthouse.
First, he announced a referral to the Department of Investigation—over which his committee has jurisdiction—a move that automatically triggers a DOI probe under city law.
Second, Torres said, he would write laws into the new city budget making funding for DCAS contingent on its providing a plan and timeline for opening the civic plaza; creating a plan to keep it safe; and releasing data about maintenance and repair costs at the 775,000-square-foot property, one of the largest courthouses in the country.
Torres said he would hold a budget hearing on city expenditures on the courthouse, and alert DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett that the investigation is a priority for his committee.
As for state oversight, a spokesman for the office of State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli—New York’s chief fiscal officer and the government official tasked with ensuring state and local governments use taxpayer money effectively and efficiently—said it is the agency’s policy “not to announce audits until they are initiated.”
“We also don’t generally start an audit if there is already another investigation underway,” the spokesman, Mark Johnson, said, suggesting the office will wait on the results of the DOI probe.