Squeezed-to-the gills Albemarle courthouses in downtown Charlottesville’s historic Court Square have long been an issue for the county. Last week, the Board of Supervisors ramped up its resolution by commissioning a study to look at moving the general district court to the County Office Building in the former Lane High School, and shipping the offices there now out to the urban ring.
Up until then, the plan had been for the county and city jointly to build general district courts across the street from Court Square, where the Levy Building is located, with Albemarle picking up the largest portion because of its greater court caseload. The sticking point for the cash-strapped county—besides the $47 million price tag—is parking.
“On all the other matters, there was no disagreement,” says Bruce Williamson, chair of the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association committee involved in the possible relocation. Last summer, he says, the city passed a resolution to provide 35 parking spaces and up to 65 upon completion of the project.
The supervisors are balking at having to pay for parking on top of the $47 million court costs, which break down as $15 million to renovate the historic circuit court, $28 million to renovate the Levy Building for the Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney offices and to build new general district courts on the Levy site, and the $4 million balance for inflation over eight years, contingency funds, management fees and interim work while a final decision is made, according to Assistant County Executive Lee Catlin. The city will pitch in $6.5 million for general district courts.
In April, county staff outlined options to the Board of Supervisors for moving the courts to 36 acres the county owns near Mill Creek and to the empty-storefronted Albemarle Square, citing the benefits of urban redevelopment through a public/private partnership.
By infill within the urban ring, “a court complex could be a catalyst for urban redevelopment,” said then-county planning manager Wayne Cilimberg.
During that meeting, Supervisor Norman Dill noted that county complexes built in “a big open field” were “often disappointing” because there was nothing else around, and they required a lot of investment in infrastructure. “Will it really be an economic driver?” he asked.
Supervisor Brad Sheffield calls the latest plan a “win-win,” and says, “It keeps the courts downtown and it provides economic redevelopment in the county.”
Not everyone is praising the plan. Former supervisor Sally Thomas says she was appalled when she first heard the plan to move the county offices from downtown. “I certainly do have concerns,” she says. Having county offices inside the city limits has helped make the Downtown Mall “a vibrant environment,” as well as aided interactions between city and county officials and staff who can run into each other walking on the mall.
Even more significantly, the county has embraced the neighborhood model and walkability as major tenets in its comprehensive plan for development. Moving its offices out into the county, she says, “makes sprawl more inevitable.”
The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce has weighed in, too, and urges Albemarle to keep its courts in the historic county seat—Charlottesville. Timothy Hulbert, chamber president, says moving county offices would add to the court project’s capital costs. “However, we have not been made aware of any county analysis indicating significant inadequacies with the current McIntire Road building and campus, suggesting a relocation,” he writes in a letter to city and county officials. “Please provide us with that analysis.”
Hulbert says he understands the value of doing the math on such a move, but “at the same time, the continuing value of a vibrant central city core to any community—our community—is beyond simple mathematics.”
The legal community wants to keep the courts downtown. “The Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association uniformly strongly favors leaving the Albemarle General District Court in Court Square” and building a complex at the Levy site, says Williamson.
All of the stakeholders—judges, clerks, lawyers, sheriffs, public defenders—want to keep the county courts in Court Square, he says.
“We’ve expressed concern that a move of the courts from Court Square would disproportionately affect the poor and indigent,” says Williamson, as well as be a disadvantage to the public defender’s office and Legal Aid Justice Center, which provide services to low-income clients.
“This is not a lawyer’s issue,” he says. “This is for the benefit of the public.”
Albemarle Clerk Jon Zug says, “Moving the general district court to the County Office Building is better than moving it out to the county.”
And the supes’ concerns about parking are valid, he says. “It needs to be addressed by them and the city. I don’t want to see them move Albemarle courts out of Charlottesville.”
The city remains committed to a regional partnership with the county and to a long-term solution for the courts that benefits all parties, says Mayor Mike Signer. “We’re looking forward to the conversation about the new option the county presented this week and to continuing our negotiations with our friends in the county,” he writes in an e-mail.
For Supervisor Ann Mallek, it’s about having the information on the options and “how we can stretch our dollars as much as possible,” she says.
“The bottom line is $47 million,” says Supervisor Rick Randolph, “how to optimize those funds in the best long-term interest of the taxpayers of Albemarle County and in the short-term interest of potential economic stimulus.”