Thursday, May 30, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Study: major new space needed for court system; Options: Renovate/expand, or raze criminal courts bldg.

Cost to renovate/expand or build brand new about the same: $88M to $100 M

A consultant’s report on the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House has left the county’s elected leaders with some serious sticker shock at the potential cost to either expand or replace this three-decade old building.

The fate of this two-story edifice, which dominates the 200 block of West Elm Street in Graham, was ultimately the subject of a protracted discussion that rounded out a two-day budget retreat which the county’s board of commissioners held last Wednesday and Thursday.

During their 80-minute detour into this building, the commissioners heard from a group of consultants that they had previously hired to develop a plan to renovate and expand the facility. To this end, the firm’s representatives presented a proposal for a four-story expansion that would more than quadruple the floor space of the existing building. The consultants also shared another proposal to demolish the old structure and replace it with an entirely new, four-story building.

In either case, the commissioners were told that the county can expect to spend roughly $82 million regardless of whether it preserves the existing courthouse or razes it to make room for a new one.

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A changing venue
These two competing proposals proved a rather climactic conclusion to the board’s budget retreat. During the course of these two-day proceedings, the county departments and agencies presented roughly $212 million in spending requests to the county’s governing board. Yet, the price tag for the criminal courthouse seemed to leave the commissioners more gob-smacked than any of the other big-ticket asks they heard in the lead-up.

The particulars of the two plans for the criminal courthouse were formally laid out for the commissioners on Thursday by David Taylor, a project architect with Chapel Hill-based CRA Associates. The county had originally enlisted Taylor’s firm about three months ago to flesh out a plan that the commissioners were kicking around for the building’s potential expansion.
In his report to the commissioners, Taylor noted that he began his inquiry by assessing the state of the existing structure, which had opened its doors to the public in 1993.

“Our investigation conclusions are that the building was built very economically 25 years ago,” the consultant went on to acknowledge. “Many of the components and systems of that building have reached the end of their useful life and need to go through major repairs and upgrades to continue on into the future.”

Taylor said that he and his colleagues proceeded to meet with the various agencies and organizations that comprise the local courts system. These conversations gave the consultants some sense of each unit’s space needs – from which they extrapolated a “gross square footage” of 140,690.

At the moment, the local courts system has some 77,000 square feet of space scattered across several locations. The most noteworthy of these sites are Alamance County’s Historic Court House, the Civil Courts Building next to the county’s own headquarters, and the criminal courts building, which was rechristened for the late superior court judge J.B. Allen, Jr. in 2017.


Made to order
Rather than leave the court system’s operations in their presently diffuse state, Taylor said that he and his colleagues were urged to centralize them as part of the criminal courthouse’s proposed expansion.

“Bringing everybody in under one roof was one of the main goals of this,” he told the commissioners. “So, we’re bringing the clerks of court out of the historic building.”

Taylor said that he and his colleagues also received other marching orders from a design committee that included top-ranking county officials and the court system’s top brass.

Among the committee’s priorities were single public entrance to enhance security, a phased construction schedule to minimize disruptions to the court system’s operations, a “stately” building that could serve as “a symbol of civic pride for the county,” a shelf life of at least 30 years for the expanded facility, and a “realistic budget and schedule.”

Taylor said that he and his colleagues drafted seven “schemes” based on the committee’s instructions. The committee’s members ultimately zeroed in on two of these plans – one that called for a four-story expansion of the existing facility and another that proposed an entirely new building to replace the existing 30,000 square-foot structure.


[Story continues below graphic depictions of the two options for additional judicial space.]



Architectural renderings provided by consultants show the conceptual looks associated with expanding the existing Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House (above), which has 30,000 square feet, by adding a 110,000 square foot addition; or (below) building a new 4-story courthouse with 140,000 square feet, after which the existing Allen Court House would be demolished.


Taylor conceded that both of his firm’s proposals have certain pluses and minuses. Both plans would provide the courts system with 140,000 of square feet along the 200 block of West Elm Street. Yet, the latter, which calls for an entirely new building, would avoid the time and expense needed to refurbish the existing facility, which is sitting on a deteriorating foundation that’s Taylor said the county would do well to correct regardless of whether it expands or replaces the building.

Kenneth Redfoot, the president of CRA Associates, told the commissioners that the extent of these renovations eventually inspired his firm to explore alternatives that cut the old building out altogether.

“The demolition of J.B. Allen,” he added, “became a part of our study because the folks we were listening to just didn’t see it as a viable way to continue to provide services for the courts.”

One theme that has repeatedly surfaced in the discussions about the criminal courts building is the suggestion that the facility was already inadequate when it opened its doors in 1993. This insinuation doesn’t quite jive with the recollections of retired district court judge Ernie Harviel, who ascended to the district court bench in 1990.

In an interview with The Alamance News, Harviel recalled that, prior to the building’s construction, officials within the local court system had sought a single facility to centralize all of their operations.

“They had planned for a bigger building that included all of the functions we had in the three buildings now.” he told the newspaper. “But the county manager told us what it was going to be….It had a limited function in that was going to take care of criminal court, and that was all.”

The bottom line
The proposal for a new building is also expected to minimize the potential upheaval to the court system’s operations since the existing criminal courthouse would remain in service until it’s torn down. The building’s demolition would also reduce the potential loss of parking from 80 to just 20 of the 390 spaces which the courts presently have along the 200 block of West Elm Street. Moreover, the cost of the project would be remarkably similar regardless of whether or not the county dispenses with the old Allen building.

On this note, Taylor yielded the floor to Tony Murphy with the Palacio Collaborative, a firm that specializes in cost estimates for construction projects.

Murphy conceded that, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the building industry has seen costs for all manners of ventures go up by about 25 percent across the board.
“In my 32 years of estimating, I’ve never seen volatility like we have currently, and it is totally demolishing clients’ budgets,” he added. “Our concerns over the next couple of years are shortages of workers and resources to build projects…So, in the short term, we don’t have any good news.”

Murphy went on to admit that this rampant inflation would drive up the cost of the courthouse’s expansion to about $82,111,518. In contrast, he said that the county can expect to spend about $82,404,610 if it demolishes the old structure and constructs an entirely new edifice in its place.

A lot to digest
Murphy’s cost estimates seemed to simplify the decision for some members of the county’s governing board.

Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, tentatively voiced his preference for the second option after he chewed on the prospective cost of the existing building’s expansion.

“This is a heartburn number,” Carter told his fellow commissioners. “It almost seems like it’s the best idea to build it all brand new.”

Meanwhile, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, urged his colleagues to pursue one plan or another lest the cost of construction goes up even more.
“The longer we wait or delay,” he insisted, “the higher the costs are likely to be.”

But the matter proved far from settled for commissioner Craig Turner, who suggested that the county could reduce the project’s expense by leaving areas that won’t be immediately occupied in an unfinished state. He proposed this sort of “shell” space for some of the project’s 12 proposed courtrooms, which he stressed are far more than the county’s four district and two superior court judges could presently fill.

Meanwhile, Pam Thompson urged the consultants to seek recommendations from the general public rather than rely on the building’s future occupants to dictate the size and accoutrements of their own offices. “This is almost $100 million to get the pretty toilets,” she told her colleagues. “You may actually want a team of the people who are actually to give their input of what the risk is when they walk in and how the layout feels.”

The commissioners also brainstormed some potential sources of revenue to cover the prospective cost of this project. Among other ideas, they contemplated the potential use of federal pandemic relief funds and a $15 million state allocation that the General Assembly has earmarked for a new emergency services center. In regard to the latter proposal, Turner even conceded that the design commission, which includes him as a member, considered reserving the new building’s fourth floor for a 9-1-1 call center in order to justify this potential use of the state’s allocation.

A potential drawback to a four story building is its accessibility in the event of a fire. In the past, Graham’s fire department has discouraged three and four story structures for the very reason that they exceed the reach of its two-story ladder truck. Even so, the prospect of a courthouse with four floors doesn’t sound any immediate alarms for the city’s fire chief Tommy Cole. In an interview with The Alamance News, Cole insisted that he and his colleagues have various workarounds to compensate for the limits of the department’s ladder truck. He also alluded to features within the building itself that should make things much easier for the department.

“If it has a proper fire suppression system in it,” he said, “which it would be required to have, we would feel comfortable with that.”

In the end, the commissioners reached a consensus that it will probably require a bond referendum to raise the money needed to either expand or replace the criminal courthouse.
“This is bond level debt that we are looking at,” Carter noted at one point, giving voice to this prevailing opinion. “So, we need to take a look…at how much debt we can support.”

To wit, the commissioners instructed the county’s administrators to research the county’s debt capacity before the board resumes its discussion about this facility.

Read our editorial page opinion on the study’s findings:

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