After the Jefferson City Planning Commission meeting wrapped up on Thursday evening, members of the Commission, staff, and I sat down to enjoy some dinner (courtesy of Jefferson City) and talk. As I've usually done during this trip along Route 50, I asked them what they viewed as the most challenging issue facing the city.
The first response -- and one echoed by many of those sitting around the table -- was the state pen. That's right: the state penitentiary. Actually, the prison moved out of the downtown area about four years ago, to a more rural site in Cole County.
But what remains are massive prison buildings located on a 142 acre site on the edge of downtown. [photo above, view of historic prison buildings from new Dept. of Natural Resources building at one end of huge redevelopment site; photo below, exterior of historic Housing Unit 4, more on this shortly]
Instead of viewing this as one big headache, city & state officials, along with the business community, are viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jeff City.
Planning Director Janice McMillan was kind enough to give a call to Charles Brzuchalski ("C.B.") who staffs the Missouri State Penitentiary Redevelopment Commission, formed to plan for and then oversee the redevelopment of the prison site. Joined by Janice and Jefferson City Senior Planner Eric Barron, C.B. took us on a two hour walk around the site. Needless to say, there are a host of challenges in redeveloping the prison -- but even greater opportunities.
Some background. Until its relocation in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest state prison West of the Mississippi, housing its first prisoners in 1836. It has panoramic views of the Missouri River (though I doubt the inmates had much of a chance to enjoy them). There are 56 buildings on the site -- enclosed by a thick prison wall, with commanding guard towers.
The Missouri State Pen made national headlines in 1954 when a brutal and deadly prison riot erupted. The inmates took control of the entire prison, wreaking havoc. Many of the newer buildings on the site were put up after the riots. But the old, mammoth, prison buildings remain -- and will remain a key part of the redevelopment plan.
At one time -- before prison reforms -- the state pen held as many as 5,300 inmates. But even at more recent levels it was still a crowded place. It's housed many notables, including James Earl Ray who escaped from the prison before killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Early in the 20th century the state pen also housed female inmates -- but listen to C.B. tell part of their story in the audio clip at the end of this post.
Housing Unit No. 4 is the oldest building, last used on September 15, 2004 -- the date all prisoners and staff were bused to the new pen in just 16 hours (with no advance notice). It was constructed of stone quarried from the site by prisoners, and constructed by the prisoners as well.
C.B. showed us Sonny Liston's old cell, and invited me in. As sobering as it was to stand inside Housing Unit 4 (where Liston's cell was), the starkness of the prison environment was even stronger in Housing Unit No. 3. It's design, as C.B. explained, reflected the "more modern" approach to penology.
On a hot June day, I mentioned that I could imagine the oppressive atmosphere when the wall of cells was filled. Both Janice and C.B. "corrected me" by saying I was missing the most overwhelming aspect of the prison while it was active: the incredible level of noise from the prisoners, especially when visitors appeared.
It's the most intense confined space I can recall being in. You can see the levers that released the gas. The mirrors above the execution chairs are still there.
And on the wall are photos of the forty prisoners executed in this spot.
Other major buildings -- especially those of newer vintage such as the SuperMax block -- will be removed to allow for new facilities such as a meeting center. The "Consensus Plan" for development on the site envisons a public assembly / conference center and one or more hotels on the site, perhaps reusing one or more of the buildings such as the old shoe factory. Portions of the site will be for new office space; another section will be set aside as open lands. While portions of the exterior prison wall will be removed to allow for redevelopment, a considerable section will remain.
A key to the development plan is dividing the site into several different functional areas:
Another important component of the redevelopment plan is a bridge from the site over the railroad tracks that block access from Jefferson City to the Missouri River. (While in Jeff City, you'd hardly know this major river rolls right by downtown).
Besides the financial hurdles facing the project, another major issue is getting highway access directly from U.S. 50 -- the main east-west artery through Jefferson City -- to the prison site. Right now, access requires driving on local roads through a residential neighborhood. Jefferson City planners have prepared a Central East Side plan for this mixed residential, commerical, office neighborhood, and want the state penitentiary plans to respect this area. Studies looking into how to get better access are underway.
With its proximity to downtown, redevelopment will also strengthen connections on Capitol and High Streets between the State Capitol Building and the State Prison site. The view along Capitol Street offers dramatic views of the towering Captiol Building.
The project benefits from having all key players involved on the Redevelopment Commission -- which is being staffed through the Missouri Office of Administration. C.B., who is an architect, noted that state historic preservationists have been closely involved with the project from the start so that key preservation issues can be dealt with and resolved. The Legislature has also given the commission broad, independent powers to dispose of land.
Already two major state facilities have located within the project area, a nicely designed headquarters for the Department of Natural Resources and a new State Health Lab. Through assistance from Missouri's congressional delegation, a new federal courthouse is now slated for another part of the prison site.
These facilities could help jump start the rest of the ambitious project, which calls for more than one million square feet of office space, a museum about prisons, hotels, and conference facilities.
I'm setting out three audio clips from my conversations with Charles Brzuchalski (total of 17 minutes). In the first C.B. provides an overview of the planning process and challenges for the site. In the second he talks about some of the inmates in Housing Unit No. 4. In the third C.B. discusses two well-known female inmates.
- to listen to Charles Brzuchalski (14 minutes total) [press blue arrow to play; click link to download]
- access this conversation on our podcast page
photo to the right is of the Women's Building at the Missouri State Prison -- C.B. discusses two of its most famous inmates in the last portion of the above audio clip.