Four out of five Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday chose the Main Street entrance of the courthouse as the preferred spot for the public’s lone access point to the building in the future.
The single-access point is one aspect of overall renovations being planned for the structure following the departure of a few county offices, including the sheriff’s department, to the improved administration building that recently opened on Main Street. Aspen police personnel also have moved out of their courthouse basement spaces to new headquarters also located on the city’s main drag.
Commissioner Patti Clapper was the lone dissenter at Tuesday’s work-session discussion on the courthouse-access topic. She favored ingress and egress on the west side, facing Galena Street and the library, and said “cutting a hole in the face” of the Pitkin County courthouse would denigrate the historic structure.
“I think we can accommodate the needs on the west side,” she said. “That’s our historic courthouse, and the face of that historic courthouse should remain historic. I think doing any changes to the front of that building is just totally unacceptable. I’m obviously outnumbered here.”
Following the 45-minute discussion, as commissioners were moving into a new issue, Clapper added, “Makes me sick to my stomach.”
Clapper’s point of contention had been a source of concern to other commissioners as well: the alterations that will have to be made on the south side of the courthouse to build a special entrance and elevator lift for the handicapped. In meetings over the last few months, Clapper and her elected peers repeatedly sought information about north- and west-side options from the local steering committee that’s been studying the matter.
In the end, most commissioners went along with the preferred alternative of the committee, which primarily consisted of county staff and others who use the building daily. If the plan stands, the existing staircase and the new elevator lift will take courthouse users to a security screening area in the lobby of the main floor. Courthouse employees won’t have to use the main entrance; they’ll have access via the west and north sides through some type of special security card or code. The details regarding employee access have yet to be worked out.
Amid many pros and cons, the central arguments against the north and west sides were the awkward routes courthouse customers would have to take to get to their final destinations. The north side entrance, or the rear of the courthouse, would bring them into the basement, where space for ingress and egress and a security checkpoint is limited. The west side would place them in rooms formerly occupied by the county treasurer’s office, where they would have to make several twists and turns before exiting the security checkpoint and being deposited into the main-floor hallway. Because of the building’s historic nature, county officials aren’t keen on removing walls and reconfiguring spaces to match modern-day needs.
Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan, speaking to the west-side configuration, said it presented some security-layout concerns. “The biggest security issue with this is that it would require more manpower. The security personnel would be segregated from even seeing the rest of the building … it’s a very funky design for the flow of security, too,” he said. Sheriff’s deputies won’t be manning the new courthouse security checkpoint – those duties will be handled by contracted private security officers.
Commissioner Rachel Richards said even though a new entryway and lift would be built at the south side of the building — where a small window currently exists directly beneath the window of Sheriff Joe Disalvo’s former office — landscaping and creative construction could make it less visually obtrusive.
“I like using the main front entrance at the end of the day,” Richards said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for the dignity of the handicapped access being at the main front door, along with the pedestrian traffic. …This is pretty straightforward and I don’t think it’ll be particularly noticeable.”
Commissioner Steve Child, while appearing to lean toward the north-side option during his initial comments, ultimately came around to the notion that the south entrance would be more accommodating to the public. Though he wanted more information about the habits of courthouse users and how customer traffic tends to flow, Commissioner Greg Poschman came to the same conclusion.
Commissioner George Newman voiced his preference for the south-side entrance at an earlier meeting and never swayed. He reiterated his prior point the Lady Justice statue is at the south exterior of the courthouse.
“I think Lady Justice is what designates a courthouse. You can move Lady Justice, but I don’t know that the lady would like that. That’s where the attorneys will be walking in, where the public will be walking in, and I think it signifies the importance of coming into a courthouse.”