420 S. 18th St.

Last year, architect Bob Perrin sued Douglas County over its effort to force him to sell this building at 420 S. 18th St. Perrin quietly celebrated Tuesday.

The owner of a century-old building at 18th and Howard Streets says he plans to file a lawsuit challenging Douglas County’s move to seize his property and demolish it, making way for a $120 million juvenile justice center.

“I think it’s atrocious,” Bob Perrin said Tuesday afternoon, following a nearly seven-hour meeting during which the Douglas County Board took initial steps on the project, including using eminent domain to take his building at 420 S. 18th St. “It’s absolutely atrocious.”

The County Board’s decision came even as one board member said he had concerns about the financial burden the project would place on the county and what he perceives as a lack of transparency in discussions about the project.

“You’re going to make us strapped for cash for the foreseeable future,” board member Jim Cavanaugh said.

But proponents said it was necessary to keep momentum going on the proposed facility, which has been years in the making.

The center, which would be funded through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission, would most likely require an increase to the county’s property tax rate of about 3 cents per $100 of valuation. That means the owner of a $150,000 house would pay an extra $50 a year, based on projections from County Finance Director Joe Lorenz.

Cavanaugh argued that there needed to be more opportunities for public input before the county forged ahead. He expressed concern with the board’s decision to use a private, nonprofit organization to oversee the project, pointing out that such an organization isn’t subject to open meetings or public records laws.

“We should slow down and take a deep breath and look at this and other alternatives to this before we plunge ahead, destroying further downtown architecture,” he said.

The six other board members said the new juvenile justice center is urgently needed. The Douglas County Courthouse, across the street from the proposed site, is overflowing, and its juvenile justice floor is old and gloomy and presents safety concerns, with people accused of serious crimes mingling with youths in court for family matters.

According to plans presented to the board at the end of June, the new youth detention campus would include space for juvenile courts and related services, new offices for attorneys and a juvenile detention center.

“This is an extension of our current courthouse, which is the people’s house,” said board member Mary Ann Borgeson, who has long championed a new juvenile justice center. “We want to make it the best.”

City Councilman Ben Gray also urged the board to support the juvenile justice center. There’s no time for thumb-twiddling, he said. The courthouse is out of space.

“We’ve got to stop putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient,” he said.

Several defenders of Perrin’s building who spoke during the public hearing said Omaha has a poor track record of preserving old buildings. They asked why the county couldn’t just look elsewhere to build the center.

But that location is pivotal to the county’s juvenile justice center goals, as they’ve been outlined so far, proponents say. Currently, law enforcement officers shuttle young people from the county’s youth detention center at 42nd and Pacific Streets downtown for court hearings. Having the center closer to the courthouse is not only convenient for attorneys, probation officers, law enforcement and the young people — it’s safer, proponents have said.

Perrin said his building is integral to the character of its neighborhood, and he was frustrated at what he said was a lack of communication from the county during this process.

The county offered to pay Perrin $900,000 for the building in May. He declined the offer. The building was assessed for tax purposes at $457,000 this year, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office.

“I think it’s invaluable,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a community asset. It’s a gem.”

Borgeson emphasized that there would be more opportunities for public input as the project progresses and that the plans aren’t set in stone. The next steps, she said, are awaiting Perrin’s official response to the initiation of acquisition proceedings and determining the justice center’s specific needs. Then the nonprofit organization will be able to move forward with design.

“We want input,” she said. “It’s not that we’re trying to shut anybody out who was here today to provide input.”

During the meeting, the County Board also approved:

» A request for $1.45 million in advance funds from the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission for the first phase of work on the juvenile justice center.

» The terms and conditions of a private, nonprofit corporation formed to develop the juvenile justice center.

» Several agreements between the county and the building commission, saying the two entities would work together on planning, financing, design, construction and other components of getting the center off the ground. Those will still need building commission approval.

» The 2018-19 Douglas County budget. The tax rate is to stay the same, at about 28 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

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