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In 3-2 vote, commissioners endorse 5-story addition to 1995 courthouse

Barring a change of heart by county commissioners — or construction inflation that derails the project — Henderson County residents will in the years ahead see a new five-story judicial center on North Grove Street that will dwarf the 1995 courthouse.

That was the outcome of a long discussion last week that ended when commissioners voted 3-2 to move ahead with architect’s drawings for a five-story building over the other option, a three- story structure with a much larger footprint. The vote to move ahead with design puts commissioners on track to authorize the courthouse addition and a jail expansion at a total projected cost of $150 million — making it by far the costliest capital project in the county’s history.
Commissioners in an earlier vote had accepted design of the jail expansion. Now that the county has opted for the taller courthouse design, architects will move ahead with detailed drawings and construction cost estimates in an environment of high inflation, labor shortages and supply chain challenges.
“We have three decisions to make,” Chair Rebecca McCall said this week. “Do we do the courthouse first, the jail first or both together? Right now I feel personally the jail and detention center is the most urgent need.” She noted that the projected overall cost has risen from $127 million to around $150 million.
Commissioners hired Fentress Architects, an international design firm with studios in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Houston, to provide conceptual planning and preliminary design for the new judicial center. Steve White, an architect with Fentress, presented the three- and five-story options to the board and the pros and cons of each. Both are around 94,000 square feet at a cost of around $60 million.
“With having a taller building it’s inherently more efficient,” he said. “You don’t have as many hallways because it’s mostly vertical.” The higher structure also makes it easier and more efficient to transport inmates from the jail to holding cells to courtrooms.
On the negative side, a five-story building attached to the north side of the existing structure “sort of swallows the ’95 courthouse in its size,” White said. With the three-story option “the scale is much closer to the scale of the ’95 courthouse.”
Commissioner Michael Edney, an attorney who spends his days in the courthouse, strongly endorsed the taller option.
“My preference is a five-story new courthouse that will hold courtrooms and the Clerk of Court office and then a renovation of the ’95 building into an office building that will hold the other functions.”
Commissioners Daniel Andreotta and David Hill, who leaned toward the three-story option and also wanted more time to explore potential cost trims, voted no on Edney’s motion to move ahead with design of the taller judicial center.
“It comes from having worked in the building for 40 years and in other courtrooms and other buildings and the way the functions actually work and flow,” Edney said when Andreotta asked him why he favored five floors. “It would just be a much more efficient building if it’s more compact.”
White told commissioners the cost difference between the two options was negligible given the overall scope of the project.
“In my opinion (the decision) shouldn’t be driven by ‘this one costs more, this one costs less.’ It should be driven by the function of the court and what you want,” he said as the board closed in on a vote. “Whatever the decision, we’re going to design a very attractive, functional, cost-effective building.”
Edney argued against delaying the decision because construction costs are likely to tick upward with each passing month. “We need to know at some point whether we can afford to do it or not and the sooner the better,” he said.
The county commission’s vote clears the way for County Manager John Mitchell, the county’s construction manager and Fentress Architects to bring on board a construction manager at risk — an overall manager that produces a final construction cost and agrees to bring the project to its end at a guaranteed maximum price. Left unresolved are several other potential options that will ultimately drive what county functions go where between King Street and the railroad tracks behind the jail. Commissioners last week did not reach a decision on what to do about parking but talked about numerous options for parking and other potential moves.
With the courthouse expansion, judicial services, including the clerk of court, judges’ offices, the D.A. and public defender’s offices, courtrooms and jury rooms, would move into the new building. The county could then migrate the personnel housed at 100 N. King St. into the vacated space at the 1995 courthouse. That would open the possibility of bulldozing the King Street office building and using that land for either a surface parking lot of parking deck.