by Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
When it opened in 2008, the loftily named Bronx Hall of Justice was billed as the crown jewel of New York’s court system — the biggest courthouse in the state, sheathed in glass and housing enough courtrooms to handle dozens of criminal and civil cases each day.
All these years later, the verdict is that it’s more like a broken-down jalopy. Plagued by cost overruns and in constant need of repair, the building is a testament to architectural overreach followed by a never ending whack-a-mole campaign to tackle endlessly needed repairs.
Floors built over an underground stream are collapsing. The lower level floods regularly, rendering six courtrooms empty and useless and redolent of persistent mold.
The automatic handicapped door at the entry lobby has been shut down because the floor right inside the door is collapsing. Contractors on scene repairing what the original construction wrought for a time routinely disabled the fire alarm while they worked, which allowed a fire inside the building last year to spread.
Last Saturday, one of the glass windows that envelop the building spontaneously shattered — a regular occurrence officials blame on the fact that building is settling. And through the weekend and into the week city workers racked up overtime ripping out and replacing sheetrock after the most recent flood in the lower level.
There seems to be no end in sight for troubles at the vast structure designed by the internationally renowned firm Rafael Viñoly Architects.
“We bought a Maserati and we got a Volkswagen — and not even a new one,” said one former official involved in addressing the building’s many woes. “It was supposed to be the jewel of all courthouses in the state and in the nation.”
The dire state of the structure is keeping all six courtrooms on the lower level offline, just as the justice system is lurching back toward a full calendar of in-person hearings and trials after heavy reliance on remote sessions.
Judges had to be reassigned to upper-floor courtrooms, and some court parts usually kept separate have been combined, a jerry-rigged accommodation that slows down the wheels of justice.
“It creates chaotic calendars and will cause a space problem if it’s not fixed and we return to full pre-COVID operations,” said Patrick Cullen, president of the state Supreme Court Officers Association, who happens to be stationed at the Hall of Justice.
Swelled Construction Costs
The plan for a new state-of-the-art courthouse to handle a growing caseload in The Bronx was announced by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki — both lawyers — more than 20 years ago. It started with an estimated cost of $325 million and a completion date of 2005. It was managed by the state Dormitory Authority with the plan that the City of New York would be responsible for upkeep and the court system would be tenants.
From there it was nothing but bad news.
The Hall opened three years past due with total construction costs having risen 30% to $421 million, and it didn’t stop there. By 2016 the city Department of Design and Construction (DDC) had to hire another contractor, Lanmark Group, for “post construction work.” The next year Lanmark got a second contract for “remediation.” The two contracts were budgeted for $31 million, of which $29 million had been paid out as of last week.
The Viñoly firm has never faced legal action over the Bronx Hall of Justice design, but was sued in 2012 over another Dormitory Authority project, the West Quad athletic facility at Brooklyn College.
In court papers, the Dormitory Authority alleged “numerous design errors and omissions were discovered,” including a poorly designed lawn drainage system, the failure of a curtain wall system during a snowstorm and an electrical system that crashed when it was initially engaged.
The Viñoly firm also designed a luxury condo near Billionaire’s Row that’s the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed last year by the building’s ultra-rich residents. While neither Viñoly nor his firm are named defendants, the lawsuit states that an outside consultant hired by the residents uncovered “over 1,500 individual construction and design defects,” including persistent water leak issues and flaws that cause “horrible and obtrusive noise and vibrations.”
Of particular note is the allegation that when the wind blows hard, the mega-tall structure at 432 Park Ave. sways so much the elevators shut down, sometimes trapping the well-heeled residents for hours.
Both of these lawsuits are pending. The Viñoly firm — which countersued engineering firms involved in the Brooklyn College project — did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY, nor did the law firm handling that case.
Cullen said his court officers’ union members have been dealing with headaches in that building almost since the day it opened. Within two years, he said, “Things start to fall off. Leaks. Bubbled painting. Disintegration of walls.”
He notes that the building was constructed on top of an underground stream that runs under Grant Avenue right through the center of the structure, and that the lower level and an adjacent garage constantly flood. Contractors have worked steadily since the building opened fixing what wasn’t properly built.
“It is kind of like Groundhog Day,” Cullen said. “There’s always a new construction program. When one gets done they’re on to the next one. And again this was meant to be the shining star on the hill for courthouses in New York. This was the gold standard.”
Closed for Construction
On a recent visit, the problems were evident even before entering the building. In the entryway, the automatic handicapped door has been turned off. The floor just inside that door is collapsing and has been duct-taped to prevent it from falling in.
Then there was the incident in June when someone dropped a lit cigarette into a ventilation grate at the front of the building that started a fire inside the courthouse.
Last week, the grate had plywood nailed over it and the destruction wrought by the fire — ripped out grates and sheetrock — was still piled up inside a glassed-in atrium, eight months after the incident.
On the day of the fire, smoke billowed into the lower floors and the court officers’ locker room, but no fire alarm sounded. The contractors working on post-construction repairs had disabled it because their equipment kept setting it off, Cullen said.
But the biggest issue is the six courtrooms and grand jury room located on the lower level.
Last week, the usual sounds of courthouse life — court officers calling out cases or attorneys requesting bail for their clients — could not be heard there, because the courtrooms were all empty. Instead, the hallways resounded with the tapping and drilling of Department of Citywide Administrative Services workers replacing sheetrock for yet another Band-Aid repair job.
The level flooded last September during Hurricane Ida, and then more recently a burst pipe caused yet another deluge. Down one hallway the sheetrock had been cut away from the floor to knee level, the yellow insulation and steel frames exposed. Law books were carefully stacked on a wooden desk and covered with a clear plastic tarp in what should have been a judge’s office.
In other hallways, the drop ceiling has been ripped out, yellow electrical wires dangling from above. Walls were cracked from ceiling to floor. Ceiling vents have been covered up so as not to draw construction dust up into the ventilation system.
Court officers and lawyers say the dramatic reduction in available space forces trials to cram into smaller courtrooms on upper floors. That reduces the number of potential jurors sitting in the box during jury selection, which slows down the process of running trials.
Lawyers say the building was never able to handle the capacity of cases playing out in its courtrooms. Stacey Richman, a prominent criminal defense attorney, said meeting with clients was extremely difficult because the space allotted isn’t sufficient to handle every case on the daily docket.
“Nothing moves with alacrity because the capacity to bring up prisoners is so restricted. On calendar day it slows the process so much,” she said. “The builder did not understand the capacity issues. It was a physical disaster. You could go there and wait and never see your client.”
Her father, the veteran criminal defense attorney Murray Richman, noted the stately Bronx Courthouse two blocks away on the Grand Concourse — the one featured in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — was built the way things were supposed to be built, to last.
“It’s beautiful. It’s a dedication to the brilliance of the 1930s when they built things with beauty in mind. Take a look at the Hall of Justice, it’s a shithole,” he said.
The problems aren’t limited to the bottom level of the nine-story building. Three floors up there’s a specially designed space featuring a rock garden that’s only been enjoyed by pigeons. Humans aren’t allowed because of problems with roof leaks.
Also as of last week, the building has yet to receive a final certificate of occupancy from the city Department of Buildings, despite being open for more than a decade.
Instead DOB has issued temporary certificates every 90 days for the last 13 years, and the last one expired on New Year’s Eve.
DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky emphasized that the agency has deemed the building to be safe for occupancy, but said five outstanding issues related to mostly minor code violations still have to be resolved before a final certificate can be issued.
The Office of Court Administration, the state agency that occupies the building, emphasizes that upkeep is the responsibility of the city.
Lucian Chalfen, an OCA spokesperson, wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions: “Our history with this building goes back to its opening. While it is architecturally striking, the shoddy construction and ongoing maintenance issues are problematic. New York City is responsible for maintenance and we hold them to account.”
Asked about the amount of overtime spent on repairs at the Hall of Justice, a spokesperson for DCAS declined to comment.
Regarding the six unusable courtrooms in the lower level, Chalfen noted, “Repair work is well underway, including replacement of sheet rock to eradicate any mold issues.”
Chalfen noted that OCA was aware of the fire and the busted handicapped door and many other issues, stating, “We are in constant contact with DCAS about the issues which they then address. Statewide we occupy the court facilities, but by statute, the locality must provide and maintain them. This is for New York City to continue to address.”
The problem of drastically reduced court space at the Bronx Hall of Justice was somewhat alleviated by the COVID pandemic, which significantly cut the in-person use of courthouses statewide and the Bronx Hall of Justice in particular.
Chalfen noted, “Until the late fall, there were not that many jury trials.”