Questions linger over proposed demolition of former city jail
The Oklahoma City Council is being asked to decide whether the old police headquarters and city jail is too historic to tear down or too dilapidated to save.
The police headquarters and jail, built in 1935, were part of a larger “Civic Center” redevelopment of a rail yard that was removed a few years earlier as city leaders sought to address trains that were stopping and blocking traffic between north and south sides of downtown.
The building at 200 N Shartel Ave. was built along with the Civic Center Music Hall, City Hall and the County Court with funding provided through a bond issue and matching federal grant. The police department moved to a newer building in 1968 while the jail remained open until 1997.
The proposal being considered by the city council on Tuesday would allow staff to start the review and permit process to tear down the jail along with the 1968 police headquarters and an adjoining municipal court building built in 1951.
Both the 1951 and 1968 structures were closed over the past couple of years when they were replaced with a new headquarters and court.
A city staff report suggests money will be saved if all three structures are torn down at once, and the surrounding operations, including a 911 center, all need parking that was lost when the new court and police headquarters were built on surface parking lots once used by visitors and employees.
The three buildings targeted are not on the National Historic Register, and the jail has been considered for demolition several times over the past two decades. Only one developer, Marva Ellard, has sought to do a deal to save and renovate the jail with commercial use on the bottom floors and storage on the top jail floors.
On Monday, Ellard said the latest talks have been at an impasse for several months.
“It’s been hard to come up with a path to move forward given constraints the city has maintained on the use of the building and participation related to the cost of abatement and clean up,” Ellard said. “I’m still willing to work on a solution that maintains the building. I think it is an important part of the history of the city and should be valued as such.”
The city staff report to the council indicates the six-story jail has only one of two elevators operable and floor heights in the third to sixth stories have a clearance of just 6 feet, 10 inches, making it, according to city staff, “difficult and expensive to rehabilitate.”
Ellard acknowledges the building needs work, adding it also is filled with pigeon waste and may need some asbestos remediation. She sees the building as being historic due to its role in the Civic Center development.
“It was a four-building sweep, all funded with the same money and built in concert with each other,” Ellard said. “They were shown together in renderings and they are pieces of the same puzzle. Though it might be the smallest, it still played a vital role in the history of the city. To destroy it is to destroy a part of our history.”
JoBeth Hamon, whose Ward 6 includes the jail, police headquarters and court, hopes to get a delay on deciding whether to proceed with demolition. If the block is cleared, the plan is to replace the buildings with surface parking for the new court and police headquarters.
“This is all pretty new to me and it wasn’t on my radar before I got elected,” she said. “I want to get some information about the state of the building and talk to Marva, who has been in the most discussions. On Wednesday, James (Councilman Cooper) and I took a tour of the old police headquarters, and we were going to suit up and go into the jail. But it was really warm and we were told even if we were to suit up, there was no guarantee we would be protected from the asbestos.”
Hamon said she is not a fan of tearing down old buildings just to replace them with surface parking. Ellard said Monday she still believes the jail is a viable target for preservation and adaptive reuse.
“I think it would benefit from everyone being in a room together,” Hamon said. “It is in really bad shape, so I also understand the desire of the city to be done with it.”