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Dallas County to consider whether to demolish the county jail and criminal courthouse – potentially changing the city skyline

County commissioners have begun the process to consider whether to retrofit the existing jail or build a new smaller, smarter facility.

DALLAS — Dallas County commissioners are considering whether to move the county jail and criminal courthouse from the western edge of downtown, potentially opening hundreds of acres of prime real estate to development that could permanently change the city skyline.

“We’re looking at what would be best,” county Judge Clay Jenkins told WFAA. “Can you make this one over [during] the next decade or two into the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars – constantly adding to the jail so it stays up to code or is it cheaper and wiser to build another one?”

The jail dates back to the 1980s. Keeping up with changing jail standards on how and where to house inmates has cost the county millions in renovations over the years.

The Lew Sterrett Justice Center sits behind the Frank Crowley Courts Building at the corner of W. Commerce Street and Riverfront Boulevard on the western edge of the Dallas skyline. To the south sits the now abandoned state jail and a large surface parking lot. To the north is an empty lot that has gone undeveloped for years.

Credit: Martin Doporto

Thirty years ago, it was an underutilized part of the urban core. Today, it’s a lucrative piece of land sitting between Dallas’ two iconic Calatrava bridges.

A new jail could be smaller and smarter than the 7,200-bed capacity facility currently in use, Jenkins said.

A new one would be designed for violent offenders – not for those inmates with addiction and mental health issues.

“If you can build it smarter and it leads to getting cops back on the street faster, that’s a savings,” the judge continued.

County commissioners already agreed to form a committee to make a recommendation on what to do. Next month, commissioners will formally name the members of that committee.

Jenkins said he will appoint Noé Hinojosa, Jr. He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Estrada Hinojosa, a Dallas-based investment banking firm. 

Commissioner J.J. Koch told WFAA that he has asked Jeff Spivey, the former police chief of Irving to sit on the committee. Commissioners Theresa Daniel, Elba Garcia and John Wiley Price will select the rest of the group.

“Our useful life for our current jail is probably done in about five years. So, we need to have a plan for replacement certainly within 10 years, optimally within eight,” commissioner Koch told WFAA.

“There may be some people that say ‘judge, just fix the old one. It’s cheaper.’ Well, that sometimes can be true. But if you’ve ever redone an old building or old house, sometimes that can be as expensive to fix up and build as a new one,” Jenkins explained. “I’m interested to hear what the public has to say. It will be a very thoughtful process.”

Credit: Martin Doporto

But this discussion is a lot bigger than just potentially erecting a new, smarter jail. 

If Dallas County moves the lockup and its criminal courthouse, it would return hundreds of acres of lucrative land downtown back to the property tax rolls and free up prime real estate on the western edge of the skyline.

“When [former Dallas] Mayor Mike Rawlings and I were trying to lure the [Texas] Rangers we were able to build with the Dawson Jail – the empty jail next door – if we knocked that down, there’s enough room to put a [major league] baseball field. But if you add all of that other land – obviously the Rangers are where they are, we’re not getting the Rangers, if you get all that land, you can do something really big and special,” Jenkins told WFAA.

A new county jail, by state law, would have to be within four miles of downtown, Jenkins added. 

It’s likely to take up to a year for the soon-to-be appointed county committee to make a recommendation.

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