All rise: New J&DR courthouse simpler, techier
It took five years and cost $20 million, but the newly renovated Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court building on High Street is finally open for business. Indeed, when the Hook visited last week, there was a full house in the lobby, buffered now by a shiny new metal detector and three bailiffs, while men in suits stood under the new portico having a smoke, and folks with a court date cursed and strategized with their lawyers.
Some have been alarmed at the time and cost of the renovation, which includes a three-level, 91-space parking deck and new office space, due in large part to the collapse of a section of the building in March 2006. A year after the collapse, City Attorney Craig Brown was still in discussions with the contractor, Kenbridge Construction, which he said revolved around the considerable cost of restoring the building and continuing the renovation.
Eventually, the city would file a lawsuit accusing Kenbridge Construction and excavation company J.A. Walder of “cutting corners.” Kenbridge fired back with its own lawsuit, accusing the city of poor planning. In January 2009, after three days of mediation, the two sides came to an agreement: Kenbridge would pay the city $520,000, enough to cover the city’s out-of-pocket costs, and in return the city wouldn't seek damages for the construction delay. In the end, no one claimed responsibility for the collapse, and Kenbridge would receive over $1 million in insurance pay-outs for the mishap.
But public works director Judy Mueller thinks the cost of the joint city/county project was reasonable.
"This was a very complicated project that included the restoration and remodeling of an historic building, coupled with new construction of an addition and a structured parking deck," says Mueller. " The construction was done on a very tight site. The project was competitively bid, and the bids came in substantially below the architect's estimate."
But how does Mueller explain that, in 2006, the city's own construction report listed the cost at $13.5 million, a number widely reported in the local media.
"Our construction report [in 2006] only listed the actual 'construction costs' and not total project costs for our major projects," explains Mueller. "We have since that time shifted to showing total project costs to give a clearer picture of all costs."
Mueller says the cost includes "soft costs" and property acquisitions. Among the biggest of these, she says, were the architectural engineering fees, the acquisition of the two adjacent parcels [the Preston Morris and Wheeler buildings which now house the court support services] and all the associated costs of the court's 32-month move to the Levy Opera House building facing Court Square.
Indeed, Mike Mollica, the city's capital projects director, says the court's temporary move cost $1.8 million, which included a required exterior sally port and interior holding cells.
As for the new design, courtesy of Richmond-based Moseley Architects and Philly-based Wallace, Roberts, & Todd (responsible for the overall concept), it's certainly a departure from the Colonial Revival style of the original home of the Elks Lodge, which was largely destroyed by fire in the late 1940s.
The once slender columns have been replaced by squat, fat ones, and the once elaborate portico with a dentil-laden gable is just now a simple, unadorned entablature. Other lost architectural details include the two pilasters mimicking Doric columns, the once rusticated fa§ade (on which every fifth brick was indented), and the Colonial Revival balcony above the entrance. At first glance, the new design appears to be yet another nod to Mr. Jefferson.
"The portico columns are real brick with plaster coating," says Mollica, " just as Jefferson would have done."
Representatives from WRT had not responded to a request for comment by the time of this post.
If the exterior does not thrill, the interior has all the latest bells and whistles. In addition to three new elevators, Mollica says the flooring in the courtrooms and hearing room feature sustainable cork flooring, the roof has a special membrane that absorbs heat, and electronic HVAC control make the building remarkably energy efficient.
However, the real stars of the renovation appear to be the security systems, which can be controlled by a touch-screen computer system from three locations. In addition to video monitoring and an elaborate intercom system, the movement of defendants to and from the holding cells and the courtrooms is aided by the use of "card access readers," which are monitored at the control stations and can quickly be locked down.
New bullet proof glazed windows were also attached to the inside of the historically preserved exterior windows, protecting the judge's bench from a "possible exterior ballistic threat," says Mollica.
Meanwhile, the $20 million renovation did not include work on the adjacent Albemarle County Jail, which sits deteriorating right next to its shiny new neighbor. The old jail, a marvel of 19th Century security systems with its three-foot stone walls and "iron cage," is the responsibility of the county, which has initiated a re-use study for the building. According to county project manager Ron Lilley, he hopes to have several concepts ready for public discussion by the end of the year.