Continuing his push against a new downtown juvenile detention center, Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh unveiled a more detailed proposal Thursday to renovate the county’s current lock-up for youths.
Cavanaugh said the renovation would include knocking down a small building and tearing out a driveway to create a recreational lawn at the current Douglas County Youth Center, 1301 S. 41st St.
He proposes adding multiple windows to let in more natural light, remaking floors, walls and furnishings to be less jail-like, and converting unused housing unit space to educational, recreational and health and dental clinic uses.
Cavanaugh’s proposal estimated the cost of the renovation of the current juvenile detention center at $14.5 million, as opposed to the $26 million that HDR Inc. has estimated a new one downtown would cost.
He said volunteers working with him had produced the estimate. Cavanaugh declined to name the volunteers but said they included two Omaha architects, each of whom has more than 25 years of experience. He said they did not want to be named out of concern that they and their businesses would face retaliation from the powerful Omaha companies that back the county’s proposal.
Cavanaugh rolled out the proposal at a rally-like meeting, attended by more than 30 opponents of the County Board proposal, in a City-County Building mayoral conference room.
Technically, it was a meeting of the County Board’s administrative services committee, which is chaired by Cavanaugh. But only one other member, Mike Boyle, attended the meeting. For about an hour, Cavanaugh stood at a lectern usually used by the Omaha mayor and presented his proposal. People applauded.
Cavanaugh has led the opposition to the official Douglas County juvenile justice center project. That proposal is championed by Douglas County Board members Mary Ann Borgeson, Chris Rodgers and P.J. Morgan, as well as HDR Inc. and Omaha philanthropist and businessman Mike Yanney.
It calls for spending $120 million to erect two buildings southwest of 18th and Harney Streets. A 10-story tower would house juvenile courts, the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices, juvenile probation and other related services. A four-story building next door would house a new Douglas County Youth Center.
The proposal also would erect a five-story parking garage. That would cost an estimated $7 million in addition to the $120 million for the buildings, but proponents have said the garage would be financed using bonds that would be repaid with parking revenue.
Proponents said a new youth detention center, designed and built to modern standards, next to a new juvenile courthouse downtown would lead to more efficient, better services for families and troubled youths. The detention center would have room to house 48 youths but be expandable to 64 beds. Proponents say less space would be needed because reforms already underway and changes inspired by the project would lead to fewer youths in detention and shorter stays for them.
Cavanaugh counters that his proposal would have room for the current number of juvenile detainees, 75 to 80, and access to outdoor recreational space that a downtown center would lack.
“Better for the kids, cheaper for the taxpayer, smarter all around,” Cavanaugh said in an interview.
Cavanaugh also supports building a courthouse annex tower. But his would be taller — 12 stories — and narrower so as to avoid having to acquire an adjacent old building whose owner doesn’t want to sell it.
Cavanaugh said he and his experts estimate the total cost of his project at about $107 million, although he said cost inflation could push it to about $116 million by the time it would be built.
HDR Inc. has estimated the official project at $120 million. That does not include site acquisition costs of about $7 million, building demolition or the parking garage. Cavanaugh said that with inflation, the county’s justice center proposal could cost $140 million, although its proponents have said it absolutely would not exceed $120 million.