South, west or north? In preparing for next year’s courthouse renovations, Pitkin County officials are still grappling with which side of the historic building should serve as the lone public entrance.
During a county commissioners work session Tuesday, Undersheriff Ron Ryan and others involved in planning the project laid out six options involving single-access points and security-screening areas for the public. Four of five commissioners attended the meeting, but no clear consensus on a single alternative emerged.
However, three options were generally discarded: two, for the building’s west and south sides, that featured an external lift to make the building compliant with American with Disabilities Act regulations; and another alternative for the south entrance that centered on construction of a long outdoor wheelchair ramp in lieu of an external or internal lift to bring courthouse customers up from the garden level to the first-floor lobby.
Three options appear to still be in play: a south-side main entrance with an internal ADA-accessible lift that would be entered through a garden-level doorway beneath what is currently a sheriff’s office window; a west-side entrance with an internal lift that would be accessible by an entryway that currently is part of the district attorney’s office; and a north-side entrance which, of all the options, would have the least impact on the building’s historic façade, yet presents logistical problems involving security and egress.
Ryan and other planners appear to favor Alternative 1, which makes use of the building’s main entrance on the south and features an internal lift for the disabled. The existing staircase and new lift would bring courthouse customers to a security checkpoint at the first-floor main lobby.
County historic preservation officer Suzannah Reid said the building’s front door on the south side was designed to be exactly that, “to tell the public where you [go] in.”
Using the existing south-side main entrance won’t “require a lot of extra signage and barriers that say, ‘Walk around the building to get into the back’ — which would happen with [Alternative] No. 6,” Reid said.
The reference to Option 6 relates to the north-side entrance plan, an area where there is already an entrance and wouldn’t require a lift since an elevator already is in place in the basement, or what planners are calling the “garden level.”
By entering from the south side, the courthouse’s longtime main entrance, customers would be approaching “a sense of civic-ness,” Reid said.
She also seemed to favor the internal lifts, whether built for the south or the west sides. Exterior lifts, Reid said, “are pretty substantial visual elements. They require a lot of alterations to the exterior of the building.” Such significant exterior modifications “compete with that sense of symmetry and sense of hierarchy of the façade of this building.”
Commissioners will have the final say on which option moves forward. More work sessions will be held in the coming months.
Commissioner Patti Clapper agreed that the exterior lifts would have a “huge impact” on the building. But she noted that Alternative 1, the south-side entrance with the interior lift, also has its drawbacks, including changes to the courthouse’s historic façade to accommodate the new entryway for the lift.
While Alternative 1 is still on the table for Clapper, she said that the security-screening area planned for the first-floor lobby would be a distraction to the building’s historic atmosphere.
“It’s not like you’ll still be walking into that amazing space,” she said.
Commissioner Steve Child wondered if the main entrance and screening area could be planned for the south side while a separate entrance that’s ADA-accessible could be created at the north entrance.
Ryan said such a scenario, with two entrances, would likely require an extra security-screening station. Each station would need three private-company security screeners, working whenever the courthouse is open, who are contracted for their services.
Setting up a single security area would keep personnel costs down, he said. Deputies will still maintain a presence in the courthouse after the Sheriff’s Office moves to its new headquarters at the nearby addition to the county administration building. There are no plans to use deputies as security screeners, he said.
Like Clapper, Child expressed displeasure with the options that include exterior lifts or the long ramp. He voiced favor for a north-side entrance — one already exists in the rear of the building — since there would be no impact to the building’s historic exterior.
Commissioner George Newman noted that the security checkpoint seemed to be the primary driver of planning dilemmas. He agreed with Reid about the importance of the south-side front door, and expressed favor with Alternative 1.
Addressing the concern that the lobby would be taken up by security personnel, Newman noted that the Sheriff’s Office, Treasurer’s Office and Assessor’s Office are moving to the new county building soon. The courthouse will truly be a building for court-related services, he said, and any social functions that were previously held in the courthouse lobby can now be accommodated in the new county building.
Trying to route courthouse users around to the back or the west side of the courthouse doesn’t make sense, Newman suggested.
“We’re not doing justice to our Lady of Justice [statue]” at the front of the courthouse, Newman said, by steering people to a different entrance.
Clapper said she remains concerned about preserving the building’s historic front façade, and wants to see numbers on how many courthouse customers use the south entrance and how many use the west side.
Ryan said he would try to obtain that information, but added that with the county moving many services out of the courthouse, there’s a likelihood that fewer people will be using the west-side, or Galena Street, entrance.
Clapper replied that she understands the need for enhanced security at the courthouse, “but that’s important to me — the historic preservation.” She also pointed out that the Garfield County Courthouse in Glenwood Springs has a public security entrance that’s accessed from the building’s side door, not the front.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said that while he likes the north-side plan because it’s the least obtrusive to the building, he wants more information.
Courthouse renovations are estimated to cost at least $1.6 million and could run as much as $4 million, officials have said, depending on the extent of final designs. Construction is expected to begin in spring or summer of 2019.