Jail Bluff Riles Critics 

City Council seeks details, delays jail vote.

A matter of measurements sparked an all-out political battle Monday in the run-up to City Council’s vote on the new city jail contract.

The issues surrounding the proposed jail are many, but one in particular has raised the ire of Councilman Bruce Tyler: the height of the building. The team selected by the city exceeded the height requirement, reducing the overall price of the new jail considerably. If all of the teams had known they could propose taller buildings, sources say, the four proposals would have likely been much closer in price.

On Monday morning, hours before council was scheduled to take up the matter, Mayor Dwight Jones told reporters that all four of the teams bidding on the project exceeded the height limit established in its request for proposals in December. On July 21, Style Weekly reported that the $116.6 million jail proposal submitted by Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction Co. exceeded the height restriction (visit styleweekly.com for more).

Sources tell Style that the city’s jail review committee was adamant that the design not exceed the highest point of the eastern hill behind the existing jail on Fairfield Way. Meeting the height restriction, sources say, meant the teams bidding on the project had little choice but to build the new jail in phases and incorporate existing jail facilities, significantly driving up the cost.

By selecting a proposal that went higher than the bluff, which is 150 feet above sea level, these sources say, the city violated its own procurement requirements. The city now says all four proposals exceeded the bluff, so the question is moot. “I think it will surprise all of you to learn today that each of the four proposals exceeded the stated height limitation,” Jones said at Monday’s news conference.

It might surprise one of the teams who bid on the project. While the city submitted its own calculations of the “probable” heights of each of the four proposals, one person familiar with the jail procurement says there was no need. For example, the group with the lowest elevation provided a computerized, 3-D model to the city showing that their building didn’t exceed the 150-foot height restriction.

The city says it’s probable that it did; when factoring in the mechanical equipment on the roof, that design came in at 157 feet.

“There’s no need for guesswork,” says the person who spoke with Style on the condition of anonymity, refuting the city’s claim. “The site elevations were not exceeded even when including the penthouse” equipment.

Councilman Tyler, an architect, says he reviewed all four proposals and Tompkins/Ballard’s appeared to be the tallest. On Monday, Tyler said the team with the lowest elevation did, in fact, include a computerized model that shows their building didn’t exceed the bluff. (Since the contract hasn’t been awarded, the proposals aren’t open for public inspection.) “They are making this into a three-ring circus,” Tyler says of the Jones administration. “I can read drawings.”

On Monday, council decided to postpone their vote on the contract until Thursday at 6 p.m. “I want to make sure that the citizens of this city know that this process is as transparent as it could be,” Councilman Chris Hilbert said.

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