Durhamites -- or at least the hardy few who made it to the downtown library in a crowd where insiders seemed to practically outnumber "civilian" citizens -- got an interesting peek at the proposed new Durham County Justice Center last night.
County government officials joined representatives from project architects and designers O'Brien Atkins, Heery-HLM Design, and The Harris Collaborative to present the rundown on the 300,000 sq. ft., $100 million replacement for Durham's 1970s-era courthouse, itself a facility renowned for being outgrown as soon as it opened -- and with elevators prone to breaking down without fail.
Come the fall of 2012, county officials expect the replacement facility to stand as a beacon on the skyline, providing a gateway to the Bull City, a portal to downtown -- and, not coincidentally we suspect, a visual barrier obscuring Durham's largest downtown multi-unit residential complex.
In this artist's rendering, the new courthouse is visible on the block bordered by Mangum to the west, Roxboro to the east, and Dillard to the south. The justice center is designed to stand 11 stories in height, and at 187 feet in height the tall, narrow tower would stand almost as tall as the SunTrust/Hill tower downtown, and almost as long as a football field.
Which is the perfect height, really, to block the Durham County Detention Center from view coming up the freeway. And, less cynically, to provide what designers and county officials describe as a signature "gateway" to downtown, with blue-green North Carolina slate accenting a sandstone-colored building.
Also part of the design: a mid-rise wing providing extra office and administrative space, a public plaza intended to open onto American Tobacco and the future Scientific Properties high-rise development across Dillard, and a parking garage that's, well, a parking garage. (More on that in a bit.)
The justice center, which as envisioned is almost twice as large as the Diamond View II office complex visible at left in the artist's rendering, will unite a number of justice-related departments in the county, including the Sheriff's Office, which will unify its downtown operations currently bifurcated between the existing courthouse and the 300 block of East Main Street.
Juvenile Justice, the Public Defender's Office, the Clerk of Courts, and the District Attorney's office are also among the dozen or so departments set to move into the facility.
Conveniently, the justice center and the jail will be linked by an above-ground secure corridor: handy if you need to transport prisoners between the big tower and the big house or, less commonly, should your D.A. need to go spend a night in the slammer, courtesy of what we should call the Nifong Causeway.
The complex is set to be built upon the site of Scarborough & Hargett funeral home and the former downtown U-Haul center; both facilities are set to be demolished by early 2009. Construction will begin at the end of that year, with the parking deck wrapping up in winter 2011, with the center itself ready for move-in in fall 2012.
The design team emphasized the facility's intended impact on Durham's skyline, noting the "strong civic image" of Durham it was intended to portray, including notably the slate-covered stairwell rising the height of the tower, which prominently includes the Durham County seal at the building's peak.
A number of aesthetic improvements have been made since the spring's initial revealing of the plan to elected officials, who expressed caution at what was described in one reporter's coverage as an outsized hotel.
Among the changes: a more signature roofline and upgraded materials. Additionally, the front lobby to the facility has been augmented, standing now as a prominent three-story entrance point with double-height entries and the signature slate look. (To give you a sense of perspective, that blue-green entry point, seen below, is about the size and massing of the old courthouse that now serves as a county government office building on Main St.)
The building, as viewed from Mangum:
A closer look at the plaza and the entry wing...
...intended to be evocative of the World War I-era courthouse that preceeded it:
Inside, the courthouse will be constructed with an eye towards future expansion -- something the existing "tomorrow's courthouse" didn't quite meet. The facility will be constructed initially with 16 courtrooms, but a number of the office spaces within the building are designed for easy eventual conversion to such spaces, bringing the maximum capacity of the facility to 25.
To that end, the courthouse is designed for future expansion, since the structure (and its parking deck) would need to be enlarged to create displaced office space. Regular office space is cheaper to build down the road than the structural and circulation elements supporting courthouse areas, the latter of which require separate egress and wayfaring paths for staff/judges, the public, and defendants. In a smart move, the building's tower -- which is set up from day one for such multi-party circulation -- allows for easy conversion to more courtrooms, with offices sliding over if ever needed.
As the schematic above shows, if you're going to have a massive courthouse, it seems you need a massive parking deck to go with it. And we have nothing less than a 900-vehicle deck immediately adjacent to the courthouse.
To this observer, one of the elements likely to draw some questions (though only receiving it last night from me and one other public meeting attendee) is the parking deck's prominence along both Dillard and Roxboro, raising spectres of Durham Centre II: The Revenge. (For those new to the downtown debates, the Durham Centre tower across the street from the Carolina Theatre draws catcalls periodically for massing a large parking deck without pedestrian interest or features right along Morgan St., effectively killing any street-level activity.)
Twenty years later, the parking deck for the justice center will... sit without pedestrian interest or features right along Dillard and Roxboro.
One design team member noted the aesthetic upgrades to the parking deck, including a slate-covered tower at its southeastern corner and the presence of green trellises on upper floors, as ways of softening the look of the deck; indeed, one noted that the structured parking should be a signature gateway into Durham as drivers proceeded north on Roxboro into downtown.
In their defense, both county engineer Glen Whisler and county commission chair Ellen Reckhow noted that the much-ballyhooed concept of local governments providing street-level retail pads or allowing the decks to be "wrapped" with office space or residential as with American Tobacco's East Deck were difficult to accomplish under what both noted were legal constraints impinging on the possibility of creating such public-private partnerships.
Whisler also noted the massive mixed-use development that Scientific Properties has proposed to sit just south of the complex across Dillard Street, and noted that retail and dining options would likely be just steps away from the new justice center at both the future Scientific site and at American Tobacco. He and the design team noted that crossings to both projects would be at-grade and that the large public plaza leading into the justice center was designed to open up onto both sites.
(For that matter, an on-site cafeteria is also not planned for the justice center, just a range of vending machines and a seating area for staff and members of the public to sit and dine or talk.)
The connections to Ambacco aren't just spatial, they're visual. One rendering of the east-west hallway running through the tower shows that in the westmost windows of the hall, the Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower remain visible on most floors.
One other benefit to a large parking deck close to the justice center: overflow parking for the Durham Performing Arts Center! Whisler and a member of one of the design groups both noted independently that there aren't enough spaces in the DPAC to accomplish all the patrons at the performing arts center show, and that with the East Deck being privately controlled there were no guarantees of parking access.
Which means if you're coming to the DPAC in, say, four years, look for the big parking deck at Dillard and Roxboro. The County'll gladly take a few bucks for theater parking from Raleighites stopping at the most convenient NC 147 exit. (Perhaps we'll see Mayor Bell out front with those glow-sticks, directing drivers instead to a city-owned deck?)
North of the parking deck, past the future deck expansion zone, sits the current staff parking area for the detention center; that lot is slated for future expansion of the jail itself, a facility that could end up doubling in size as Durham's population grows in the coming decades, according to Whisler.
We wouldn't expect too many changes to the design at this point. Reckhow noted that the commissioners had had some reservations about the first pass at the design, but that from what she understood of individual commissioners' responses to the revised look, the "design is vastly improved," seeming to signal smooth sailing for the $100 million project with Durham County's elected board.