Albemarle County has issued a request for proposals for a new courts facility in Charlottesville, eyeing completion dates in 2023 and 2025.
The RFP, which was publicly posted Thursday, comes after the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville City Council announced last December that the county courts would remain downtown.
The joint project is the most complex the county has ever undertaken, according to Trevor Henry, assistant county executive. In total, he said the project is expected to cost between $43 million and $45 million, with approximately $6.9 million of the funding being contributed by the city.
“This is certainly among the largest projects we’ve started, probably rivaling Monticello High School in terms of size, but certainly more complex.” he said.
According to the RFP, the county will demolish an existing three-story office addition and replace it with a new addition to the existing Levy Opera House, which is jointly owned by the city and county. Additionally, the county Commonwealth’s Attorney Office will relocate to the Levy Building, which is located at the corner of Park and East High streets.
A multi-story addition with an underground level for parking will be constructed and connected to the Levy Building. This building will accommodate four sets of courts: one for the city, two county general district courts and a shell space for future courts operations. This addition will also house the offices for both the county and city clerks of court.
Part of what makes this project so challenging is incorporating the historic Levy Building into the design, Henry said.
“From a design perspective, we want to make sure it works aesthetically while still working functionally,” he said. “Whenever work involves using a pre-existing building, that presents an additional challenge and set of considerations.”
The intention is to create a court system that better serves the community by updating the courts, meeting Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and improving security, among other things, Henry said.
In order to determine what was needed in terms of scope, Henry said the county studied projections of population and caseload forecasting beyond 2030. Additionally, he said the plan is to design the courts in a “campus style” so pedestrians can recognize the connection between the circuit and general district courts.
The project will be divided into two phases, with an estimated 58,850 square feet to be included in this first phase of construction and renovation.
The second phase will include renovations to the county circuit court and circuit court clerk’s operations at the current courthouse. The two phases will be bid separately as individual construction projects.
Proposals from design firms are due Oct. 16, with interviews and selections planned to be finished by mid-November. Soon after, costs will be calculated and a contract finalized with the design firm.
General district court design is expected to be completed by May 2021, with construction bidding to follow from mid-May 2021 to mid-August 2023, with a move-in date eyed for October 2023.
The circuit court construction follows a similar schedule during the design phase, but due to necessary relocation, it will not start the bidding and construction phase until late summer 2023, with a completion and move-in date expected in spring 2025.
Board of Supervisors Chair Ned Gallaway said the improvements will be similar for both the county and city, which want to meet the expanded caseloads and needs of the courts and populations they serve, including additional parking co-financed by the county and city.
“County residents needing to use the court facilities will benefit from availability of dedicated, convenient parking,’ he wrote in an email. “Having the County and City court operations in one location will also allow for continued efficiency and convenience — a lot of cross jurisdictional uses occur — by employees, legal staff, and citizens.”
Albemarle has been considering court facility options since 1999, and at least four studies have been completed on the matter.
The most recent round of negotiations between the city and the county began in January 2018. A month prior, the board had directed county staff to resume negotiations on the county’s ownership and control of the lot at the eastern corner of Seventh and Market streets, as well as other issues.
Albemarle will sell its share of the jointly owned Seventh and Market lot to Charlottesville. In turn, the city will build a parking structure on the site and provide 90 county-designated parking spots on the ground level.
A separate lease for the county spots would specify that the county cannot be charged more than $1 per year in rent and that the lease will be at least 20 years long, with the possibility for an additional 20-year renewal.
The county also will get 15 on-street parking spots downtown.
If the city does not complete the garage by Nov. 30, 2023, or within one year after the General District Court project is completed, the city will have to provide 100 spaces in the Market Street Parking Garage on or below the second level for county court use. The city also will have to re-convey interest in the parcel at Seventh and Market, allow the county to use the parcel for parking and pay the county.
The county will pay for some of the maintenance costs associated with the new garage.
According to city spokesman Brian Wheeler, the appraisal of the lot is nearly finished.
The space the Albemarle General District Court is set to vacate will be renovated to become an extension of the county’s circuit court, which will cost an estimated $14 million.