It’s still unclear when construction on the new Forsyth County courthouse will actually begin, but plans are taking shape as architects work on a design for the $115.9 million structure.
It has taken about 14 years to get the project off the ground.
In 2005, a preliminary courthouse study focused on space needs and security enhancements.
At that time, Gloria Whisenhunt, now a Forsyth County commissioner, was chairwoman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
“We kept trying to find a time that we could address the issue of funding,” Whisenhunt said.
By 2008, Forsyth and the entire country were in the midst of an economic downturn.
“There was just no way to start a project of that magnitude with the economy the way it was,” Whisenhunt said.
The project didn't begin to pick up steam again until 2013 when the economy started improving and county staff were developing capital plans.
There have been a variety of proposals for renovations or a new building over the years, starting with the completed 2009 courthouse study by Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce Architect P.A.
At the county commissioners’ April 4 meeting, architects Doug Kleppin of CBRE Heery and John Drinkard of CJMW Architecture gave a presentation on a proposed design for the new courthouse. The architects, who are part of the courthouse design team, focused on floor plans and features for the building.
Damon Sanders-Pratt, a deputy county manager for Forsyth County, said that the proposed space for the new courthouse is much larger than what currently exists for courthouse users.
“The design team has worked with the users and the owner and they are coming up with a design that seeks to meet both parties’ needs,” Sanders-Pratt said. “It appears they have accomplished that.”
Forsyth County plans to pay $115.9 million for the courthouse and $13 million for a courthouse parking deck separately at an overall cost of $128.9 million. The courthouse will be built between Chestnut Street and Patterson Avenue adjacent to the Forsyth County Government Center. The parking deck will be bounded by Church, Chestnut and First streets.
In his recommended 2019-20 budget, Forsyth County Manager Dudley Watts expects to recommend to county commissioners a 2.1 cents or slightly lower property-tax increase for every $100 of assessed valuation to pay for the new courthouse. Commissioners would have to take action on the recommendation.
Samet Corp. and Balfour Beatty make up the construction management team for the courthouse project. Shelco LLC is the contractor for the parking deck.
Construction on the parking deck is expected to start this summer. The Winston-Salem City Council voted Monday to participate in the deck construction to the tune of $5 million. The city will get 183 parking spaces for city staffers in return.
Sanders-Pratt said that county officials won’t be able to predict a starting date for the courthouse until they get a construction document/design and it is approved.
But 2022 is the initial, estimated completion year.
For the new courthouse, architects have come up with a proposed design that calls for a single building instead of a previously proposed two-building option.
“That kind of low-rise structure really helps on the economic outlook for the project and really gives us the best chance to balance the functional needs with the budget that the county has set,” said Kleppin of CBRE Heery.
The new 250,679-square-foot courthouse would start with 16 courtrooms and accommodate about 2,022 staff. It would have five main levels as well as a lower level and basement.
The current courthouse on Main Street and the public defender space, now leased in the Liberty Plaza building downtown, is listed by the architects at 171,749 square feet with 14 courtrooms.
The Forsyth County Hall of Justice, which is a couple of blocks away from the proposed courthouse site, opened in 1975. It has not been decided what will happen to it after the move to the new building.
The previous courthouse, built downtown in 1926, is now an apartment building, surrounded by Main, Liberty and Fourth streets. Court functions moved out of the building in 1974, and the remaining county offices left in 2004.
Kleppin said that in 2016, a study recommended a 333,356-square-foot courthouse with 19 courtrooms, then in 2018 the proposed square footage dropped to 306,444 with 18 courtrooms.
After consideration, he said, the 306,444 square feet exceeded the budget for the project.
The proposed 250,679 square-foot building with 16 courtrooms is designed to accommodate growth for additional courtrooms in the future.
Kleppin mentioned how the economy and construction market has been challenging in recent years in terms of planning and budgeting amid accelerating costs.
“We’re still working through it, so it’s not a finished design,” Kleppin said. “We’re still vetting a lot of this with the different user groups, and we’re still vetting the pricing. It’s really just a peek of where we are in terms of the development.”
In regard to the floors in the new courthouse, the first level would include a public lobby, customer service area, the clerk of court, traffic court and large district court. The second floor would have two large district courts and other courts. Jury assembly, one large superior court and three standard superior courts would be included on the third level.
The district attorney, Guardian Ad Litem, juvenile court counselors and clerk of court would be on the fourth level; and the judicial chambers, clerk of court and conference suite/grand jury would have space on the fifth floor.
“There is an inmate tunnel that will connect to the jail and we have some staging area at this lower level to segregate and marshal in-custody populations before they travel upwards ....," Kleppin said. "We’re going to bring them up dedicated, secure in-custody elevators that serve the court floors on the upper level."
Currently inmates are transported by van from the county jail to the courthouse.
In addition to four public elevators, the building will have escalators. The jury assembly space will be open with a lot of sunlight.
Kleppin said that while the fourth level will be basically an office floor, it has the capability to expand for future growth.
Plans call for the fourth floor to have a bridge that will connect to the existing Forsyth County Government Center.
“That allows us to take advantage of some of the services within the basement of the building, but it also helps us think about this as a campus strategy, or a plan in which we can utilize this building or the whole campus over time to have flexible solutions for the needs for growth,” Kleppin said.
Plans for Phase 1 of Level 4, for example, call for converting some of the space into a courtroom then later convert more space for courtrooms, bringing the total courtrooms to 19 over time.
Kleppin also suggested moving some departments across the bridge into space in the government center to allow for more courtroom space.
Over time, there could be an additional five courtrooms for a total of 24, he said.
Courtrooms would range from 1,800 square feet (standard court) to 3,000 square feet (traffic court).
Other proposed features in the new courthouse include a single point of entry for the public and staff, non-contact interview rooms, fully accessible courtrooms, audio visual capabilities, video conference/remote testimony, secure WiFi and video surveillance system.
Over the years, court officials have said that the courthouse needs more space and courtrooms to accommodate the large number of people who enter its doors. Security has often been cited as a top problem.
Some courthouse users spoke of their concerns about the proposed courthouse following the recent presentation by Kleppin and Drinkard. They asked the commissioners to consider a number of things, including vital security, adding more space to the new building and efficiency for the public.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill thanked the commissioners for their support in building a new courthouse and spoke of how he tries to be fiscally aware of the dollars spent on the court system.
Still, he said he has voiced some concerns to the architects about the interior of the building and making sure that it is usable for the public.
“There are some details to iron out still,” O’Neill said. “We’re not in a position yet where we can sign off and say that this is where we want to be and this is where we think the county needs to go.”
He said it is important that they do the right thing for the next generation.
Other courthouse users
George Cleland IV, an attorney in Winston-Salem, asked the commissioners to recognize that some of the preeminent experts in the world are on the courthouse project team.
“If they say this should work for what we need, I don’t question it myself,” Cleland said.
Winston-Salem attorney Richard Bennett said he agreed with Cleland.
He added that he didn’t want to sound ungrateful but believed that having a 306,444-square-foot courthouse would probably be better than a 250,679-square-foot building.
“We want to be sure that whatever we do is not going to need to be redone or added to or changed significantly in the next eight to 10 years,” Bennett said.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Todd Burke and Chief District Judge Lisa Menefee also shared their thoughts on the new courthouse.
Burke said they would have loved to have seen a total budget of about $150 million for the courthouse and infrastructure such as furniture and technology, of which $120 million would have gone for the building.
He said that it is essential to provide efficiency for the public, so that people don’t have to go from one building to another.
“Additionally, a courthouse is unlike any other structure that we have in our community when it concerns security,” Burke said. “We just have to make certain if we are going to borrow from other spaces that they have the security that is essential to a courthouse."
He also said that the courthouse is probably the most used of the government buildings.
“That’s why we want it to be a durable building, a building that can serve into the future, a structure that will not be obsolete within a short period of time after it has opened,” Burke said.
Menefee said she has enjoyed working with Kleppin and Drinkard and believes they “are doing an awesome job.”
Her biggest concern, she said, is that when it is time to move into the new courthouse in 2021 or 2022, courthouse users will have already outgrown it.
She also wants a durable building.
“I don’t want to upgrade this by 2025,” Menefee said. “It’s absurd to spend this much money and already need to put more money into it."
She also said that for people working in the smaller courtrooms, lobby space is needed for support personnel and security reasons.
She said that people are scrambling now in the existing courthouse for space.
“I don’t want to scramble for space within three years of moving in, and I don’t want as a taxpayer, somebody coming back and saying, ‘Oh, we need $20 million more to update the courthouse,’ within 10 years of it being built,” Menefee said.
Where things stand
In an interview, Forsyth County Commissioner Dave Plyler, chairman of the board of commissioners, said he understands the judges’ concerns about security and the need to build for the future.
“I don’t disagree with that, but the hang up is the price,” Plyler said, mentioning how over the years the price for a courthouse has gone from about $80 million to $120 million.
What he likes about the plan is the tunnel, which he said will alleviate the need to drive people awaiting trial in a van to the courthouse.
“This is a big deal for this county,” Plyler said of the new building.
Forsyth County Commissioner Don Martin, vice chairman of the board of commissioners, said the architects have done a good job.
He likes the fact that there will be one building with five stories “and the ability to go over to the government center and pick up that square feet that’s already there.”
“As some things move around, that would be great …. That’s very efficient,” Martin said.
When asked about the possibility of adding more space to the project, Martin said the architects have been instructed to stay within the project’s budget and are trying to do that.
“I think their solution to space is basically to use part of the government center,” Martin said. “I don’t think there is a magic number of square feet that makes the courthouse work.”
Whisenhunt is pleased with the design.
“I think it’s well thought through and I think it certainly accommodates everybody’s concerns and adds lots of space and security,” Whisenhunt said.
She said she doesn’t see how the county can increase the budget for the new courthouse at this time.
“I do think that in the plan, future space is addressed,” Whisenhunt said.
Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin applauded the architects for anticipating future growth by planning for up to 24 courtrooms over time.
“That, I think, will satisfy the concerns of the judges,” El-Amin said.
El-Amin, who has been to courthouses throughout North Carolina, said Forsyth County “has one of the worst boxes for a courthouse, I think, in the state.”
“Hopefully we can bring it online as soon as possible,” he said of the new courthouse. “Make it shovel-ready ASAP.”
Watts said that the security issues with the current courthouse can only be dealt with in a newer, renovated structure.
“The overall security separation of prisoners and the general public and the judicial officials and the jurors, all those separations are critical,” Watts said.
He said he feels good about the space for the new courthouse but has a few questions about how to address security and who would move into the government center.
“I think there’s a green light to move forward with the size of the structure as we have it, based on what I’ve heard from county commissioners,” Watts said. “Where we are in this process is finalizing this concept plan around one building or two. I think this meets the demands of the judicial officials and the bar association in that it’s one building.”
He added that if judicial officials, the local bar association and others, including the public, have reservations and concerns, they should make them known now.
“That was the point of that presentation the other day, because we are heading into construction drawings,” Watts said.
Watts said it has been a long journey to get to this point.
“We’re seemingly underway now,” he said.