Fredericksburg City Council unanimously decided Tuesday night to move forward with a new three-story 78,000-square-foot courthouse facility in downtown.
What council members will decide in the near future is whether they will move forward with renovating the General District Court to house the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and if it will find use for the historic Renwick building where Circuit Court is located now. Plans now do not make any use of the Renwick building, which has become a major concern of most council members.
Mayor Tom Tomzak opened Tuesday's work session trying to put the signficance of the meeting into simple terms: "This is a very important time for the City of Fredericksburg and this is a very important meeting for the City of Fredericksburg."
The design-build team First Choice presented council members with two decisions to make: keep the design plans for a three-story building and whether to make minor changes to the exterior of the building that would have no impact on cost. Council members said they wanted to present the minor exterior design changes to the Architectural Review Board before giving final approval. The design plans are 35 percent complete, which triggered a review period from council. Other reviews will happen at the 65 percent, 95 percent and 100 percent stages.
Numerous local residents, two members of the Architectural Review Board, Sheriff Paul Higgs, Circuit Court Judge Gordon Willis and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge David F. Peterson attended the meeting on the second floor of City Hall.
The big decision council members made was to keep the new building at three stories because it essentially put a stamp of approval on that entire 78,000-square-foot structure and letting the design-build team to move to the next stage of 65 percent completed plans.
"The consequence of that decision is we are going to stay the course with building a courthouse on this site," said City Manager Beverly Cameron.
The new courthouse facility, which will house Circuit Court and General District Court and staff, will be built on the corner of Princess Anne and Charlotte streets. If council were to leave General District Court where it is and eliminate it from the new building to have only two floors, the savings was estimated at $1.59 million—an amount that shocked councilman-elect Matt Kelly, who was invited to attend the meeting and question the design-build team.
"Basically what we are doing is taking off space from the top and dropping the ceiling and you’re telling me that it cost almost half of the entire design of the building to do that?" Kelly said.
A member of the design-build team explained that the group has spent close to 60 percent of the design budget, so to make a major change such as removing one of the floors from the plans would require a re-evaluation of the space left and that there would be design costs and fees to do this work.
"If this floor is taken off, it is probably going to create a three- or four-month vacuum of redesign and our work would be null and void," the design-build team member said. He added that the cost of building is rising and that "there's no question prices will increase" if they had to redesign the facility to remove a third floor.
"We are seeing right now about a 6 percent increase," he said in building costs.
Council had until Aug. 1 to make both decisions. Construction Manager Bill Downey of Downey & Scott said he does not work for First Choice and that his job is to watch and protect the city's interests.
"As your representative, I would encourage you to make some decisions here to allow the design-builder to move on without delay," he said.
First Choice has already completed renovating the Executive Plaza on Caroline Street to temporarily house the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Councilwoman Bea Paolucci said council should begin to consider uses for Renwick, parking and whether to keep the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Executive Plaza and not renovate General District Court.
"Those two decisions should be a the subject of a work session and not just talk about it but make a decision," Councilman Brad Ellis said.
City Council already issued the $36.7 million in bonds for the project. The courthouse project cost is limited at $31.8 million but the amount will be refined during the design phase and a guaranteed maximum price will be established when the design is 65 percent finished.
Kelly tried to get council members to wait on making a decision on the size of the courts facility, but Tomzak said the city has discussed this project on and off for six years and there didn't seem to be any reason to wait any longer.
"You win some you lose some," Kelly said. "I think we are going down the wrong road."
Correction: Judge Gordon Willis was present at this worksession. This story has been corrected.
Clarification: Council decided 6-0 to move ahead with a three-story building. Fred Howe was absent from the work session because of a prior business engagement. Matt Kelly is not an official member of council until July.