New York Opens Second “Mega-Courthouse”
By Anita Womack-Weidner
With the completion of the Bronx County Hall of Justice this winter, New York will open - for the second time in as many years - one of the largest courthouses ever built in the United States. Together, the new Bronx courthouse and the Brooklyn Supreme Criminal and Family Courthouse, which opened in July 2005 (see Benchmarks, Fall 2005), add 131 courtrooms and more than 1.5 million square feet to the New York City courts.
The new Bronx County Hall of Justice
The two mega-courthouses could not be more different. The Brooklyn courthouse is 32 stories, built on a relatively small site (for a million square-foot structure) and designed to blend in with neighboring high-rise office buildings. In contrast, the 775,000 square-foot Bronx courthouse is nine stories high but runs two full city blocks, and its glass and aluminum facade contrasts sharply with its neighbors.
Rafael Viñoly, architect of the Bronx courthouse, sought a design that would give the judicial system an image of openness and transparency, rather than the opaque, closed feeling of the traditional courthouse. “What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building ... represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community,” said Viñoly. “The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society.”
The feeling of transparency and openness permeates the building. The courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms and robing rooms, all of which are in the interior of the building, have natural light from clerestory windows that “borrow” daylight from the corridors between the courtrooms
and the exterior wall. The materials used throughout were chosen both to be durable and to enhance the sense of openness. The floors are terrazzo, with painted wood paneling on the walls. Glass railings and interior partitions allow natural light into the interior spaces. Double-layered frosted glass ensures visual and acoustic privacy in attorney-client rooms. All the woodwork in the courtrooms is beechwood paneling.
There are 47 courtrooms for the Bronx Criminal Division, seven grand jury rooms and space for the Department of Corrections, the Department of Probation, the Bronx District Attorney and other criminal justice agencies. Criminal Division Administrative Judge John Collins welcomes the added courtrooms, “witness prep” rooms and jury waiting areas, noting that the division has been “really strapped for space” in its current quarters in two courthouses.
The facility features a large, open plaza and park on its north side, for use by the community and the school that is immediately adjacent to the courthouse (see article). “The plaza has parking below, so that no parking is beneath the courthouse, and provides a significant amenity for recreational use and respite by the local residents,” said Jay Bargmann, vice president of Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Eight courtrooms have audio and video recording and evidence presentation capabilities, and real time transcription will be available soon, according to Fred Wilmers, project director with Rafael Viñoly Architects. “There are flat-screen video monitors throughout the courtroom well and two large flat-screen monitors for the spectators to view.” A monitor in the holding cells adjacent to the courtrooms allows dangerous or unruly defendants to view courtroom proceedings. Four courtrooms are equipped for inmate video appearances, while two video teleconferencing kiosks allow attorneys to interview clients at Rikers Island correctional facility.
The large jury assembly room, located in a cylindrically shaped structure set into the plaza, “is the architectural focus of the project, much like a domed rotunda of civic buildings of the past. We chose to make the jury assembly room the symbolic focus of the project,” explained Wilmers. The room seats 495 jurors.
The Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred after the project design began, prompted comprehensive rethinking of security in a glass structure. Bullet-resistant glazing is used in the lobbies and judges’ areas. The glass is above street level, primarily on circulation routes along the exterior. Where higher security is needed, “the glass is provided with a ceramic frit to prevent direct viewing from surrounding high-rise buildings,” said Bargman. The public plaza is blast resistant, as are the loading dock and mail room structures. The main entrance accommodates 10 magnetometers and X-ray machines.
The north side of the court complex, with
assembly room structure in the
center of the plaza.
The building has many “green” features, including water conservation. Extensive use of daylight and advanced heating and air-conditioning systems make it energy efficient.
The courthouse is the key to court facilities renewal in the Bronx. The move frees significant space in the Bronx County Courthouse and the Criminal and Family Court building, both of which will be renovated for continued use by other courts already in those facilities.
Contents Second “Mega-Courthouse” Opens Justice Court Reforms Street Corners Renamed for Court Officers School in New Court Complex Mental Health Courts Domestic Violence Awareness Month Judge Smith Retires Judge Rosenblatt Retires Virtual Library Services Court Programs Broadcast Online Wi-Fi in the Courts Deputy Chief Support Magistrate Court Construction Update Marian Wright Edelman Addresses Conference Historic Courthouses and Trials Did You Know? Judicial Institute (JI) Program Highlights JI Legal Updates