Schematic designs for the Pitkin County Courthouse renovation project — estimated to cost more than $1.6 million — were unveiled Tuesday at a Board of County Commissioners work session.
Plans are preliminary, Pitkin County facilities director Jodi Smith said, and the project’s steering committee will seek further input from the public this summer through one or more outreach sessions before the project is reviewed by city of Aspen officials, including the Historic Preservation Commission and Aspen City Council. The process calls for Pitkin County commissioners to have final say on project details, County Manager Jon Peacock said. If all goes well, an application for a building permit could be submitted this fall with construction starting next spring or summer.
Design features call for a first-floor security screening area for the general public, a third courtroom in the basement and relocation of the district attorney’s offices from the basement to the first floor. The public would enter the courthouse through a single access point on the south side, which faces Main Street, although that could change. During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners expressed a desire that the historic building’s front facade remain undisturbed, which could result in public access, including a wheelchair-accessible entrance, being moved from the south side to the west side — the area that faces the alleyway next to the library.
Currently, the public can enter through either the south, west or north sides of the building, and only rarely have there been security screenings. In 2014, during district court hearings associated with the Nancy Pfister homicide case, those seeking entry to the courtroom were sometimes asked to pass through a special screening area, which included a metal detector.
Other features of the schematic designs call for two private rooms where attorneys can meet with their clients; a separate and secure north-side basement entrance where those in custody can be shuffled into the building and to an elevator, separating them from public view and contact while enroute to second-floor courtrooms; a new second-floor outside metal staircase that will allow egress to the grounds next to the north-side basement entrance; more space for probation services; and jury-deliberation rooms, an employee break room, extra storage space and more.
The court clerk’s offices would move from the second floor to the main floor, across from the DA’s office. Courthouse employees would be able to enter the building at multiple points as long as they have their entrance cards, otherwise they would be subjected to the public-access entrance and security screenings.
Peacock said he doesn’t anticipate the project going too far over the $1.6 million earmarked in the county budget because there won’t be a lot of structural changes to the building. Smith said $1.6 million probably won’t be enough, and the county may have to apply for state Department of Local Affairs funding or other grants to obtain extra money.
“We’re not moving a whole lot of walls,” Peacock said. “I’m hoping it’ll be pretty close. It’s a repurposing of existing space. Will it go over [the $1.6 million]? Maybe. It depends on how extensive the entryway and exit projects go. But we’ll work to keep it as reasonable as possible.”
“I’m still hoping to come in under $3 or $4 million,” Smith said. “This is going to become a complete courthouse.”
The expansion of court-related operations to other parts of the building was made possible by the creation of the new county administration and sheriff’s office building, which is under construction. Also, the Aspen Police Department, which shares space with the sheriff’s office in the courthouse basement, soon will move into its new building.
Smith agreed that the building’s historical integrity should remain intact and said that was the goal of the steering committee. “I want to do the minimal,” she said with regard to facade and structural changes.
The purpose of Tuesday’s presentation was to ask commissioners whether the committee is on the right track, Smith said.
Tom Franklin, facility planner for the Office of the State Court Administrator, which provides administrative support to the Colorado Judicial Branch, attended the presentation and spoke afterward about the future need for more court-related space in Pitkin County and elsewhere.
“We could easily have three judicial officers operating in the courthouse at the same time, between a district court judge, a county court judge and a magistrate, or even a visiting judge. So even in a two-courtroom courthouse, which we typically design, we need a third courtroom.”
He said the committee has to consider projections for population increases and caseload growth in Pitkin County. The same considerations are underway for courthouses across the Western Slope, Franklin said.
“Just because of caseloads we could easily need three judges in Aspen in the future,” he said.
Franklin said the state court administrator has a fund to help underfunded courthouses. The fund receives $3 million a year from the General Assembly, but Pitkin County isn’t eligible because it’s not one of the state’s “poorer” counties.
“The good news is the poorer counties are getting more assistance [from that fund], which makes funds from DOLA and other agencies more available. There are other grants to be exploring, but DOLA is one of the primary sources in the state,” he said.
Grant sources that allocate money for historic-preservation purposes might be another good avenue for project funds, Franklin added.