‘Historic day in Colonial Heights’
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Oct 23, 2013, 16:54
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT People gather at the front of the new Colonial Heights Courthouse prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday.
COLONIAL HEIGHTS — After years of arguing, planning and building, the city finally opened its new courthouse to the public Friday.
The new courthouse’s copper-topped cupola stands tall in the south end of the city, visible far down the Boulevard. Its classic design features a brick exterior with massive columns welcoming visitors at its front entrance.
City leaders speaking at a ceremony hailed the project as a fresh landmark that will not only be a point of pride for residents but will help boost redevelopment.
City Manager Tom Mattis called it a “historic day in Colonial Heights.”
“I know that I personally never doubted that this day would come, but I’m sure there are a lot of folks that have been with this project for a long time wondering if this day would ever become a reality,” he said.
The building at 550 Boulevard is unlike any project in the city, Mattis said. The 57,000-square-foot, $22 million project is the largest single building project in size and cost in the city’s history.
The new courthouse more than doubles the size of the 35-year-old courthouse on Temple Avenue, which is expected to be replaced by a Kroger grocery store.
There are three courtrooms in the new building compared to two in the old one. The new building has the first juvenile and domestic relations courtroom in the city. Court is scheduled to be in session at the new building Oct. 28.
“It was our goal from the beginning, City Council’s goal, to strategically place this building in such a manner that it will provide other benefits from an economic development and redevelopment standpoint, which is why we selected this site . ... We also wanted to created an architecturally unique building that would be a landmark for the community for years to come, something that we’ll be known for and something people will be proud to show,” Mattis said.
An eight-pointed star adorns the entryway in the new building.
The cupola will be lit from the interior to serve as a “beacon” for Colonial Heights.
The new courthouse is also the first LEED certified building constructed by the city. The scoring system by the U.S. Green Building Council. Mattis said he believed the building would be LEED Silver certified, resulting in “lower operating cost, conserving energy, providing a healthier environment.
The building uses natural lighting, permeable paving and a area to let stormwater absorb into the ground.
Mattis said the project required teamwork and a lot of input from numerous stakeholders.
Mayor Scott Davis said the idea of expanding or building a new courthouse began in 1998 or 1999, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that the discussion with Judge Herbert C. Gill Jr. and the Circuit Court began to make progress.
After years of arguing, the 12th Circuit Court filed a lawsuit in 2009 to remedy the inadequate building. The city voluntarily cooperated and decided the best course of action was to build a new facility because it was not cost effective to renovate the old courthouse.
“Today we are going to open a building that was built to the most modern courthouse standards, the largest city-funded project in the city of Colonial Heights, and a building that will not be busting at the seams, as most government buildings, when all the occupants move in, but one that will last and also be useful for 50 years.”
Gill thanked the city leaders who helped make the building a possibility and thanked “the citizens of Colonial Heights for putting their trust in their leadership.”
“You might say this edifice is overbuilt. Let me assure you that it is not. Courthouses are built for generations and this courthouse will last the citizens of Colonial Heights for generations,” Gill said.
Sheriff Todd Wilson said it had been a challenge dealing with the problems and limitations of the old courthouse.
“The public will no longer come to the sheriff’s office and ask ‘Can I have a room to talk to my attorney?’ that we don’t have. ‘Is there somewhere that I can sit down in the hall other than the two seats that are already taken?’ in an area we don’t have. This building has it,” he said.
Wilson said the new courthouse is a landmark and will encourage redevelopment as well.
“Whether you agreed with the process when it began, whether you agree with it today, you cannot deny that we are standing in front of a flagship building for the city of Colonial Heights,” he said.
Inside the building
As you enter the front doors, there is a spacious entryway beneath the building’s cupola. A giant eight-pointed star is inlayed into the tile floor beneath.
Once past the metal detectors, there are hallways that stretch the length of the building and a wide staircase connecting the floors.
Courtrooms have computer monitors that pop up though the tables. There are numerous conference rooms in addition to the office space.
In the rear of the bottom floor is the sheriff’s office, which includes numerous safety improvements.
Sgt. Donald Hannuksela with the sheriff’s office said the old courthouse did not have have an alarm system, did not have sprinkler systems, had areas that were not visible on cameras, and didn’t even have a sally port, which is a secure garage-like entry for loading or unloading prisoners.
“When we brought people out of the back of the courthouse and put them in the car to back to jail or something, the judge could be walking out of an entrance right beside them.”
In the new courthouse, computers can control locks on the doors, open the sally port door, even control the elevator.
The new courthouse has 12 holding cells, while the old courthouse only had four. Two of the new cells are wheelchair accessible.
“Where the problem came in with the four holding cells is you got male, female adults, male and female juveniles, and you got a disruptive guy, where do you put them? We’ve actually sat people out in a car because we don’t have anywhere else to put them,” Hannuksela said.
The new courthouse has intercoms throughout with electronic locks that make it so deputies can automatically lock down the entire building.
The holding cells are in a secure section with secondary locked doors, whereas the old courthouse cells opened into the hallway.
The new courthouse also has the ability to let a defendant watch court proceedings over video. Defendants have to be able to participate in the procedure. In the old courthouse, deputies just had to handle them as best as they could, Hannuksela said.
The cameras and locks can all be controlled from a central computer station, where the operator can see all 32 cameras and use a separate monitor and joystick to aim and zoom to see details from far away.
Sheriff Wilson said a lot of research went into the design of the building.
He said he has nearly 17 years of law enforcement experience. “None of those years included building, designing, planning a courthouse facility, so what we did as a committee and what I did with some of my administration officers, is we visited all of the surrounding jails or courthouses,” he said.
Wilson said they based a lot of their work on Isle of Wight County, which is similar in size.
He said they had been in their new courthouse for about a year and had time to learn of all the things they did right and wished they had done differently. Wilson said they visited there four different times as well as larger jurisdictions such as Suffolk and Virginia Beach.
Little changes had to be made as the project progressed, such as including a drain in the floor of the isolation cell so that bodily fluids could be hosed out.
Some bugs still need to be addressed as well.
During the tour of the building Friday, one of the cell door’s electronic locks wouldn’t open, trapping City Councilman Kenny Frenier’s wife and mother for a few minutes until a key was retrieved.
Wilson said some bugs are expected when you have a $22 million, custom-built courthouse with lots of new systems. “Any building this size is gonna have them,” he said.
There are also dead zones in the building where deputies can’t use their radios.
“We are literally walking around this week and part of our big testing has been ‘Can you hear me now?’ going in every nook and cranny,” Wilson said.
Wilson said there was no way to tell the limitations of the radio system until the building was constructed and furnished. He said he will likely be seeking $20,000 to $30,000 for a device to boost the signal throughout the building. Wiring for the system is already in place, because the communication issue was expected, he said.
Sgt. Donald Hannuksela with the Colonial Heights Sheriff’s Office demonstrates the security system inside the new courthouse
One of the places with poor reception is the area where prisoners are kept, likely due to the thick cinderblock walls and steel doors.
“Out of all the places in this building that we need to be able to talk to each other, that is standing in there with the inmates,” he said.