Staying downtown: Albemarle and Charlottesville finally resolve court’s future

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The Levy Opera House Building, pictured here on the corner of Park and High streets, will be renovated, and a new $30 million courthouse complex will be built beside it.

staff photo The Levy Opera House Building, pictured here on the corner of Park and High streets, will be renovated, and a new $30 million courthouse complex will be built beside it. staff photo

After a couple of years of contention over Albemarle County’s threat to move its courts from downtown Charlottesville, elected officials in the two jurisdictions have finally decided to jointly locate their lower courts in a downtown building both localities purchased together in 2005.

“We have reached agreement on the expansion and renovation of the Albemarle County District Court and the Charlottesville General District Court to meet our future needs right here in Court Square,” said Ann Mallek, chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors.

“Today’s agreement is the result of years of work by the City of Charlottesville and the County of Albemarle to co-locate their general district courts in the same facilities, and for the county courts to remain downtown,” said Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker.

The joint decision ends a nearly five-year period during which Albemarle supervisors explored the possibility of moving the county’s courts to a location outside of Court Square, which is technically the county seat. That would have required approval by voters in a referendum.

Mallek said county supervisors explored different possibilities to make certain the more than 100,000 residents of Albemarle were best served by a downtown location.

“We have studied as many as five different court locations and options over the last two years,” she said. “At the public hearing last December and in countless emails, we’ve heard strong support for the continued adjacency of city and county courts.”

The legal community fought hard against the proposal to move the courts out of downtown, with some arguing that splitting the courts would make it harder for poorer residents to access the justice system.

Palma Pustilnik with Central Virginia Legal Aid Society says, “I think it’s wonderful that we have finally managed to have an agreed upon situation that best serves all the members of the public.” She adds that the deal has the support of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association, both commonwealth’s attorney’s offices, and the legal community.

All five city councilors and six Albemarle County supervisors gathered at the corner of Park and East High streets on Monday in an impromptu joint session to announce the deal.

After the announcement, both elected bodies met to ratify the deal in public session. Supervisor Rick Randolph cast the only vote against the deal at a meeting at the county office building.

“The county had an opportunity with this court location decision to steer its own independent path towards its own strategic objectives,” Randolph said at that meeting.

Randolph said he believes the Board of Supervisors will one day vote to move the court. He also said there was a missed opportunity to use the negotiations over the courts to help change the revenue-sharing deal that has been in place for more than three decades.

One complaint from county residents advocating for courts outside of town has been the perceived difficulty of parking downtown. Part of the deal involves the creation of a new parking garage to be built by the city of Charlottesville at 701 E. Market St. That property has also been co-owned by the city and county since 2005, but the county will sell its portion to allow the city to build its third municipal parking garage.

“The city will then purchase the county’s interest in the parcel for one half of the appraised value,” Walker said.

As part of the deal, Charlottesville will provide 90 spaces in the new structure to Albemarle, as well as 15 on-street parking spaces reserved for county court patrons “in the area immediately surrounding the county court facilities,” according to Walker.

The need to update the court facilities stems from University of Virginia projections which forecast Albemarle will grow to a population of over 148,000 people in 2045, up from a 2017 population estimate of 108,000.

“Population growth has brought increased caseloads, and the existing court facilities do not meet contemporary standards for safety and security,” Mallek said.

These trends have long been anticipated. The city and county spent nearly $5.4 million in 2005 for the Levy Opera House property in Court Square, and that same transaction also included the surface lot that will become part of the future parking garage.

Charlottesville spent $2.85 million in November 2016 for the half-acre lot that now houses Lucky 7 and Guadalajara, and soon entered into a long-term lease with the businesses. At the time, the idea of housing the businesses in the retail portion of a new garage was floated, but that did not come up at the press conference.

The new $30-million general district courts will be built next to a renovated structure that dates back to 1852.

“The facility will be approximately 60,000 square feet, and the county will maintain three courts at the facility and the city will maintain one court,” Walker said. “The Levy Opera House building will also be renovated for the relocation of the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney office.”

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