McLennan County commissioners on Tuesday will get serious about finding a new use for the old downtown jail, possibly as a future court space.
Commissioners will consult with a Pittsburgh architectural firm on the possibilities during their usual 9 a.m. meeting at the courthouse.
The five-story lockup at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue has not held prisoners since 2010, and all of its five floors are decommissioned as of this year, said McLennan County Jail Administrator Maj. Ricky Armstrong.
The county has used the space only occasionally in the last nine years. That will change, said County Judge Scott Felton and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry in interviews Monday. The county has struck deals to address future needs and to take advantage of a hot downtown real estate market, a process that Felton likened to “musical chairs.”
Representatives with Pennsylvania-based IKM Inc. will visit with commissioners about the jail’s potential. The century-old firm’s projects include repurposing the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh for a new use.
“The goal of this project was to preserve this great historic landmark immersed within downtown Pittsburgh, converting the dark, austere, noisy place of incarceration into a bright, open space appropriate for family courts,” IKM Inc.’s website states in a project synopsis.
Judge Felton said County Engineer Zane Dunnam suggested commissioners give IKM an audience.
Felton said he saw photos of another IKM-inspired jail transformation that reminded him of the McLennan County space. The project he saw had jail cells clustered on two floors, a courtroom at the center, and seating space for jurors and inmate visitors on other levels.
The judge said studies have shown the old jail remains structurally sound, but the court must investigate further potential uses and estimated costs.
“That’s where we’re trying to get to,” said Felton of the meeting with IKM.
The county closed the downtown jail in 2010 after Jack Harwell Detention Center opened at 3010 Marlin Highway, then spent $1.1 million renovating it as jail overflow space that turned out to be unnecessary.
Perry, who serves on a county advisory committee considering space needs, said he remains open-minded about how the jail should evolve.
“I do think that space needs to be taken into consideration before we move any department into another building, before we expand our footprint downtown,” Perry said. “I think that would be a wise thing to do. The courthouse is crowded as it is right now, and there is talk we will need another court in the not-too-distant future. The courts we have right now are getting busier. That space might make a fine criminal justice center, but how that would look, it’s hard to say.”
Perry said turning the space into parking has crossed a few minds.
“But it was not designed to handle that kind of weight,” he said. “Gutting it out to create a parking garage could become quite expensive.”
Felton, meanwhile, said parking near the courthouse poses little, if any, problem except on those days when potential jurors report for duty.
Perry said he believes commissioners will place emphasis on choosing a new use for the jail that does not increase vehicular traffic downtown.
“If it becomes office space or courts, those people are already here,” he said.
Felton, meanwhile, added document storage to the list of potential uses.
Commissioners in March 2017 agreed to pay The Wallace Group about $103,000 to study the best use of all vacant building space, specifically focusing on the courthouse annex, the downtown jail and the maintenance and purchasing building.
For a time after its closing, the old jail was used to hold defendants before and after they appeared in court, said county officials.