Akron’s newest mayor had a “wild idea” about a year into office, somewhere beyond the skywalk leaving City Hall on his way to the Ocasek Building across South High Street.
What if Ohio Gov. John Kasich just gave him the nearly 200,000 square feet of office space, which the city has rented for decades? In Ocasek, he could house a new city courthouse and build a stand-alone police station somewhere else, essentially pulling the city out of its poorly maintained Harold K. Stubbs Justice Center.
Two years of talks with the Department of Administrative Services in Columbus followed that thought. In December, Kasich obliged with a signature on one of the last bills to pass the Ohio legislature in 2018. Decorated like a Christmas tree, lawmakers had amended Senate Bill 51 to approve the transfer of Ocasek, valued around $10 million by the county.
For the next four to six weeks, Mayor Dan Horrigan, a Democrat, and newly elected Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, will iron out the details of a deal that jump starts a series of municipal projects that would affect most city employees over the next three years. If all goes as planned, which means the city council has to agree, a leaner Akron city government would join the utility billing and service departments at the municipal garage on Triplett Boulevard. A new police station would be completed, perhaps outside downtown. And high-volume misdemeanors, small claims, probation and traffic violations now handled in Stubbs would slide into the renovated, now-city-owned, Ocasek Building.
The only downside is Stubbs, now occupied by the city’s police, prosecutors, courts and some county sheriffs. While the city is gaining Ocasek, which was built in 1984, there’s no plan to fix up the city’s 52-year-old safety building on the other side of a city block that includes state and county courthouses.
The elevators in Stubbs routinely break down, stressed each day by thousands of visitors, attorneys, judges, defendants and convicted criminals who share rides to court on the top three floors of the nine-story office building. Horrigan said millions of dollars in repairs have been put off at Stubbs over the decades. If the only viable answer is to tear it down, the city would be saddled with a $10 million bill to first remove asbestos.
“That’s the coin flip,” Horrigan said of finding a new courthouse in Ocasek and future use for Stubbs, which is valued by the county at $16.5 million. With a municipal hiring freeze planned through 2019, Horrigan is shrinking the city to shore up finances. With each land deal, “we want to have the same space or less, and less cost to maintain it,” he said.
Issue 4 money, approved by voters in 2017 to support police, fire and roads, will be requested in the 2019 capital budget for a consultant to determine the needs and possible locations of a new police station.
And $8 million of court fees set aside for a new courthouse will be earmarked for the $23 million Ocasek renovation, which promises a more welcoming atmosphere for the public while giving jailers separate elevators and secluded areas to place inmates in courtrooms.
The city has talked about a new courthouse for nearly three decades, only recently scrapping plans to build at the Morley Center. Architects said it would cost as much as $30 million to build on top of the parking deck at the health center, which is nearly as old as Stubbs and in need of repairs.
“One of the big delays with the new courthouse, which everyone agrees we need, is the funding,” said Akron Judge Jon Oldham, the municipal court’s presiding judge for 2019. Oldham doesn’t care that it might be 2022 before Ocasek is ready. “Unfortunately, large projects take a lot of time,” he said. “But I’m just happy that we are where we are so we can start to address the safety and convenience issues we have with the current building.”
The acquisition of Ocasek is offset by the recent sale of CitiCenter for $2.8 million to Weston Inc. The Cleveland-based developer of historic buildings is planning 60 apartments in the old YWCA building. The city had been using some of it for storage.
Since that sale, administrators in the fire department have moved into Ocasek, awaiting a permanent home when Station 4 is rebuilt on Thornton Street. The mayor is reviewing all office space occupied and owned by the city with the idea of further consolidation to control maintenance costs.
Plans for Ocasek
The Ohio Department of Administrative Services will confirm nothing more than the pending transfer of the state’s largest asset in Akron, which is named after Oliver Ocasek (1925-1999), an Akron Democrat who presided over the Ohio Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.
There’s no cash in the deal, Horrigan said. For the Ocasek Building, the city would lease space back to the state at no cost for a yet-to-be-determined period of time.
In February when the deal is expected to be done, the city would enter a nine-month design and planning phase to retrofit the 1984 building, which features an open-air courtyard with an arched glass ceiling visible from the first floor. That bottom of the courtyard would get a ceiling and be used for more office space, bumping the sky view up to the second floor.
The building would be basically split in half at the existing staircase that winds back and forth up five floors in the middle of the atrium. The state would use the 75,000 square feet on the High Street side. About 95,000 square feet near South Broadway, including space recently vacated by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, would house the city’s judicial system.