The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
CITY COURTS DEBATE BACK ON
BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Fredericksburg City Manager Beverly Cameron now has detailed design plans for the city’s new $35.4 million courthouse.
But those plans could be useless if the new council taking office July 2 decides to overhaul the project.
With the addition of Councilman-elect Matt Kelly, the new council may have the four votes needed to stop the project in its tracks, or at least make significant changes.
Current council members Fred Howe III, Brad Ellis and Bea Paolucci, along with Kelly, have expressed concerns with the way the project stands now.
However, killing the project or changing it significantly could end up costing the city millions. The bonds have been sold and the two buildings on lots where the courthouse will go are scheduled to be demolished next week.
The questions now: What changes will the new council demand? And how will that affect the price of the project?
DETAILED PLANS ARRIVE
Earlier this month, First Choice Public–Private Partners gave Cameron detailed floor plans for the 76,000-square-foot courthouse scheduled to rise at the corner of Princess Anne and Charlotte streets in downtown Fredericksburg.
It has two courtrooms each for the Circuit and General District courts, office space for the court clerks, holding cells for defendants and space for the Sheriff’s Office.
The project will be completed in three phases, Cameron said.
The first was to relocate the Judicial and Domestic Relations Court to the first floor of Executive Plaza, which began last week.
The second phase is the construction of the new courthouse, a 16-month process that could begin in January.
The third phase is the renovation of the existing General District Courthouse—across Charlotte Street from the new courthouse—where the J&D court will eventually move. That is estimated to be done by March 2015.
WHAT’S BEEN PAID FOR?
The project’s price tag includes $1.1 million for the purchase of the land, $32 million to construct the new building, and another $2.3 million for architectural services, furniture, equipment and other fees.
Approximately $3.3 million has already been spent or pledged for the project, Cameron said.
While a provision in the contract allows for it to be terminated, “it would come at a very steep price,” said Cameron.
Because the bonds have been sold, the city still has to pay the debt service even if the project is canceled, he said. Exactly how much that would be remains unclear, but it could add millions on top of what has already been spent.
For instance, in fiscal 2013 the city is scheduled to pay almost $1.4 million in interest, and another $2.9 million the next year in principal and interest.
KELLY WANTS TO SEE CHANGES IN PROJECT
Several current and incoming council members have complained that the new courthouse is going to cost the city too much in the coming years.
Kelly said he is looking at the size and scale of the proposed structure and what the options are to downsize it, something he has discussed with the project’s architects. He said he is willing to work with “all the parties” to build something on the current site.
“If they are not willing to budge, we can bring this to a screeching halt,” he said. “I’m not looking to kill the project [but] I’m not going to support it in its current form.”
His other concerns are that the plans don’t address parking or the future of the historic Renwick building, where the Circuit Court is now.
Beyond the construction price, he’s afraid that operating costs for the new building will take funds away from other city priorities. He worries that staffing the facility could require double the number of courthouse employees.
Sheriff Paul Higgs said additional deputies will be needed, but probably not twice as many. He said discussions about exactly how many will be needed will probably take place early next year.
Cameron said that any additional hires will have to be approved by the council, so it will be “completely controllable.”
He said that the purpose of building the new courthouse is to meet needs now and in the future.
“If the city continues to grow and caseload grows likely we’ll need additional employees,” he said.
OTHER COUNCIL MEMBERS HAVE QUESTIONS
Kelly isn’t the only one concerned about the project. Howe said Kelly represents his opinions about the courthouse, but declined to comment further.
Paolucci said her biggest concerns also are about parking and the uncertain future of the Renwick building. She said she’s afraid if the Renwick building isn’t dealt with up front, it won’t be dealt with the right way later.
Ellis, like Paolucci, wants something to be done with the Renwick building. He also takes issue with the way the space in the new courthouse will be used, he said.
He said that he doesn’t think each judge needs a separate courtroom and that the J&D Court should stay in the Executive Plaza, its interim location. Then the city could use the savings from that to renovate the Renwick building, he said.
On Feb. 13, the city’s Architectural Review Board granted permission to demolish the two existing buildings at Princess Anne and Charlotte streets, and reluctantly agreed to the scale, size and site plan for the new courthouse.
But last month ARB members held off on approving the building materials, citing concerns about the type of stone being used for the base and its “boxy” design. They also discussed at a May meeting whether to reconsider the project’s scale.
Andrew Moore, the director of urban architecture for project architect Glave & Holmes, has been at the last few ARB meetings to address concerns from the board.
The board’s main complaints were about the height and size of a decorative cupola, the look of the mansard roof and the overall building height, which at 56 feet on average is 6 feet higher than what zoning currently allows.
Moore said in a phone interview that many of the ARB’s comments have been design-related and “in some scenarios would be relatively straightforward to address.”
On Tuesday, Cameron will meet with new and current council members and the design–build team to discuss the project’s next steps, their concerns and any proposed changes they want to make.
Allen Hamblen, the project manager for First Choice Public–Private Partners, will participate.
In a phone interview, he said that the project is moving forward but declined to comment further.
However, Moore, the architect, said it would be a challenge to reduce the building size and that altering the plans could cost the city more money than it would save.
“When you take into account all the costs associated we believe it will net out to be more expensive than doing the current design,” he said.
Moore said he has discussed options for the project during informal meetings with Kelly, Mayor-elect Mary Katherine Greenlaw and city staff.
He said Greenlaw requested a presentation in front of the whole council.
Some council members see the meeting as a good opportunity to address issues.
“We do have an opportunity to re-look at it and make it the best project possible,” Paolucci said.
SIDEBAR: COUNCIL WILL REVIEW OPTIONS AT TUESDAY MEETING
BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The design–build team selected for Fredericksburg’s new courthouse will present to the City Council alternative options and cost models at a work session Tuesday. Those include:
A Circuit Court building with two stories instead of three.
Minor renovation to the General District Court building instead of major renovation.
One unfinished courtroom in the current design.
Breaking out Circuit Court records and archives space.
An alternative footprint and exterior elevation.
Converting a fourth courtroom to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court use, consolidating all three courts in one building.
The options offered by the design–build team, First Choice Public–Private Partners, result from suggestions submitted by council members, city staff and the architect.
They provide “an opportunity for the city to either commit to the current design or seek changes,” City Attorney Kathleen Dooley wrote Friday in a memo to the council.
“The idea is this is a natural pause in the construction and design process,” Dooley told The Free Lance–Star in a telephone interview. “If council wants to explore other options, this is a perfect opportunity to do so.”
The council has until Aug. 1 to review the plans and set the direction of the project.
Dooley said that because time is an important factor, city officials thought it would be best not to wait for Councilman-elect Matt Kelly to take office in July to review the plans.
Tuesday’s work session is open to the public, and Kelly plans to attend.
Dooley said she doesn’t expect the council to make a decision Tuesday night.
The council must also decide soon if it wants First Choice to perform a value engineering study before it accepts the company’s plans. Such studies are commonly used to try to wring unnecessary costs out of a construction project before it starts.
Once the council decides to accept the design plans submitted by the architect, any change will be at the city’s expense.
The contract signed with First Choice on Nov. 3 establishes a cost limit of $31.8 million for its services. The other costs of the $35.4 million project include land acquisition, furniture and other incidentals.
First Choice’s exact price tag will be established when the design is 65 percent complete. The design is currently 35 percent complete.
The contract with First Choice calls for it to submit updated plans to the city three more time—when the project is 65, 95 and 100 percent complete.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413