North Little Rock’s $30 million police and courts building is accelerating toward an under-budget completion in September, and planners hope the 90,000-SF complex will double as a kind of highway billboard for the city.
The high-tech Justice Center on Poplar Street just south of Interstate 40 will replace the 1961-vintage police and courts building blocks away on Pershing Boulevard, and will put the city’s courts under one roof with most of North Little Rock’s 191 sworn police officers.
Years in the planning, the project drew ideas from dozens of police officers and judges, including Capt. Jay Kovach, the department’s planning liaison. The complex, with two courtrooms and space for growth, was also a pet project of former Mayor Joe Smith, who left office as Mayor Terry Hartwick’s new administration took over in January.
“Their goal was kind of to create an identity for the city of North Little Rock,” said Chris Krumrei, part of the architecture team at Hoefer Welker in Kansas City, which completed the design. “A lot of people don’t seem to understand that North Little Rock is a city in its own right, and not a section of Little Rock. This building was an opportunity, right there on the interstate and basically JFK Boulevard, to be kind of a front door and get some signage that will provide that identity for the city.”
Renderings show a facade with giant block letters readily visible to traffic: NORTH LITTLE ROCK JUSTICE CENTER. “It was a great opportunity to design an iconic building that’s also welcoming and functional,” Krumrei said.
Smith, the former mayor, correctly predicted last year that general contractor Flynco Inc. of Little Rock would bring the project in under budget. Construction originally estimated at about $26 million “is coming in at about $20 million, so we’re pleased with that,” Krumrei said.
Flynco Vice President Ben Beggs credited the company’s construction team, estimator, project manager and superintendent for steady excellence. “The second reason was competition,” he said. “Better competition leads to better pricing. We had good competition on this project. This saved the city and taxpayers a substantial amount of money.”
The complex was built with a combination of city debt and partial proceeds from a 1% sales tax voters adopted in 2017. Half of that was a permanent half-percent tax for city operations, and the other half was a five-year tax dedicated to the Justice Center, Fire Department upgrades and street and drainage work.
“I wanted [the new center] to be right there by the interstate, where thousands of cars will see it,” Smith said with a laugh. “I want the people of North Little Rock to see where their money is going.”
The two-story brick-and-glass complex, built to be functional for 50 years or more, was originally set for completion late last year, but soil problems and some standing water slowed progress, Krumrei said. Now Kovach expects a 10-week move-in process, led by the city’s information technology department, to begin about Sept. 1.
The city made a land swap with the North Little Rock School District to put the 84,000-SF main building and a 6,500-SF annex on the old site of Fisher Armory and the district’s administrative headquarters. The city paid the district $500,000 and gave it the existing police headquarters at 200 Pershing, immediately north of North Little Rock High School and its football stadium.
A 1960s Legacy
The old police headquarters, and its courts annex circa 1964, are commonly associated with the wave of “urban renewal” projects that reshaped cities in the 1960s. But they actually sprang from just before that era, North Little Rock city historian Cary Bradburn said. Instead, the Pershing HQ was the fruit of late-1950s bond issues backed by Mayor William F. “Casey” Laman, whose vigorous but arm-twisting reign at City Hall lasted from 1958 to 1972, with another partial term in 1979 and 1980.
“It was only through force of his personality that the bond issues passed,” Bradburn said. “It was generally thought that North Little Rock voters wouldn’t agree to raise taxes.”
Later in the 1960s, Laman’s administration did use federal urban renewal programs to remake the city, including the Military Heights area in 1964. West 27th Street, then mostly a dirt road, became the four-lane West Pershing, which over the years welcomed a post office, the North Little Rock Community Center, traffic courts and, notably, the William F. Laman Library.
Now, more than a half-century later, another voter-approved tax is rebuilding the city’s halls of justice.
“We wanted a timeless building that’s going to be the city’s front door for the next 50 or 100 years, a somewhat classic approach that’s a bit more modern, but not so much that it’s going to look a little funky in 20 years,” Krumrei said.
The floor will be a classic terrazzo, and LED lights will ring the roof to light the complex at night. Ken Henton, Hoefer Welker’s principal in charge, noted that the light colors can be easily changed.
Substations’ Fate Undecided
Kovach said the Police Department, now stationed at the Pershing headquarters and at four substations, will get direction from Mayor Hartwick on closing any of the sites.
“That decision is going to come out of the mayor’s office in conjunction with the chief of police,” Kovach said. “We have enough room in the new building to bring everybody in, should a need arise. But we don’t have any plans as of now to completely shut down substations.”
One question is cost, Kovach said.
“We’re building a $30 million facility, so does it make good sense to maintain a substation that we’re paying rent for? Should we continue to maintain all the expenses that go with a substation?” He realizes that some citizens like having a police presence nearby. “But when you look at what it costs to maintain them, it’s a tough decision.”
The new building will include an entry canopy to protect citizens from the elements as they wait for court. An 1,800-SF community meeting room will be prominent, equipped with a large kitchen. Public areas will be separated from secure police and courts offices, and the complex will have two parking lots: one for the public and the other gated off for police and court workers.
One courtroom will be big and formal, the other compact but accommodating for 40 people. The unified approach to housing police and court operations was philosophically intentional, but it also offered economies of scale, Krumrei said.
“Combining all these operations gives you economies,” he said. “You’re not building 20 break rooms and 15 different sets of bathrooms; you’re building three or four. You save a lot of money, and you can put that into creating a little nicer space.”
The police captain agreed. “This is going to be a showplace for police and courts all over Arkansas,” said Kovach, who studied similar new facilities in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, looking to borrow ideas.
“I’d ask, ‘Hey, what did y’all do right? What did you do wrong?’” he recalled. “So with the help of our architect team and relying on their knowledge and background doing police department buildings, we came up with a very functional building that everybody can be proud of, and in the long term, it’s going to help us with recruiting. When you can take a prospect to a facility like this, it’s going to be a recruiting tool as well.”