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First stages of construction rolling out at Las Colinas Detention Facility

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Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee is getting a makeover that will triple the aging facility’s size when construction is complete.

A slightly protracted environmental clearance process has put construction work at the site of the new Las Colinas Detention Facility a little behind what had been hoped for by August.

But as clearances come in, work continues to prepare for the first bit of major work there in Santee.

The new 478,000-square-foot facility will replace and nearly triple the size of the current, aging facility on site, which was built more than four decades ago.

Early construction activities are primarily limited to preparation of the site, from the removal of brush and trees to the grading of the site.

Balfour Beatty Construction didn’t have much choice but to wait on some of the things it wanted to get done early on. In part, that was just because of nature.

The project’s final Environmental Impact Report noted that special measures would have to be taken to avoid or work around the nesting seasons of birds known to be on or around the project site, including the white-tailed kite, Cooper’s hawk, California horned lark, Bell’s vireo, yellow-breasted chat, yellow warbler and potentially some other raptor species.

The generalized nesting period for the birds was noted in the report to extend from Jan.15 to Sept. 15, with careful monitoring being required during that time period.

After beginning preliminary work on the site just after the Independence Day holiday, Balfour Beatty was given the green light on the bird issue in mid-to-late July, according to Dave Roach, senior vice president at Balfour Beatty and the Las Colinas project executive.

“It’s a matter of getting all the clearances from environmental health — looking to see if there are any protected species,” Roach said. “So we had to wait for the birds to all leave their nests before we could do things.

Other environmental concerns added to the slight delay, including the determination that a 14-acre portion of the build site near the San Diego River was at one point an agricultural site, meaning additional soil testing was required to determine if there were any remnants of pesticides.

Clearance has been granted on that front as well, Roach said.

The grading and site preparation activities will likely be the focus of construction until completion around mid-September.

Until then, an average of only a half-dozen construction workers may be onsite on any given day. Once that’s done though, the site will get more crowded as construction ramps up on certain infrastructure additions.

“We’ve got to put in the road up on the north end,” Roach said, “so that includes the new major water transmission and sewer lines.”

Vertical construction is still some time from beginning, but Roach estimated it may commence by February or March of 2013.

When completed, the first phase of construction will transform not only the look of the facility, but what takes place inside it.

Before construction began, Jamie Awford, Balfour Beatty vice president of business development, said the new detention facility will highlight a new concept for female inmate populations.

“The hope of this facility, and the operational model, is to basically rehabilitate them to get them back into society,” Awford said.

After an 18-month procurement process, the final design for the county-run facility — submitted by the combined teams of Balfour Beatty, KMD Architects and HMC Architects — met the transformational objectives of the county Sherriff’s Department and county officials.

“When you see this thing when it’s done, it (will feel) like you’re on a junior college campus,” Roach said.

The focus on inmate rehabilitation, as opposed to strict incarceration, was designed into the facility through its six stages of security.

Inmates in the lowest level of security are those closest to re-entering life outside the facility, and will have free access to onsite libraries, classrooms and areas of the campus like courtyards and open spaces.

Level two provides many of the same privileges but with slightly more supervision, and cell doors don’t even enter the equation until the third level of security.

Inmates in levels four, five and six will stay within an area of campus separated by its own fence.

Housing units will be grouped according to the detention levels and security needed. On the campus, there will be an amphitheatre; dining, medical, administrative and security facilities; buildings for inmate industries; a religious services building and a rehabilitation and learning resource center.

The yet-to-be-built new road on the north end — the one Roach said would require infrastructure changes that will bring heavier construction activity by September — will be the new public entrance off the undeveloped Riverview Parkway.

To mitigate some community concerns, the facility will incorporate natural vegetation, be kept to a low vertical profile of no more than two stories and have a curvy perimeter, to keep it from looking like a traditional detention facility from the outside. At full build-out, there will be 34 new buildings on 45 acres of land.

Between two phases of construction, the facility — designed to reduce its dependence on the local grid through on-site renewable sources and expected to receive a LEED Gold certification — will cost about $221.5 million to build.

Expected to take 18 months, the first phase will bring 832 beds, while another 384 are slated for Phase 2 -- which hasn’t been scheduled yet, as additional funding is needed.

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