In a surprise announcement December 3, members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors (BOS) and the Charlottesville City Council stood together on Court Square in downtown Charlottesville to present a completed Courts Agreement to the public. After almost two decades of contentious debate, the two sides ultimately agreed that the county’s General District and Circuit Court facilities will remain in Court Square and will not be moved to a county location, as had been seriously considered by the BOS at the end of 2017.
The arrangement calls for a redevelopment of the Levy Building site, located at 350 Park Street and facing Court Square from the east, to provide space for the County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, and the addition of a new 3-story building to house courtrooms, cells, and administrative offices for both the city and county General District Courts. The 61,000 square foot redevelopment plan is projected to cost $30 million, of which Charlottesville will contribute approximately $6.8 million based on its use of the new facility.
To address the county’s longstanding concerns over limited parking availability downtown, the city agreed to develop a parking structure at the corner of 7th and East Market Streets that will have 90 parking spaces designated for county court users. BOS Chair Ann Mallek calls the agreement “the largest capital investment in a generation” and lauds the retention of “our community’s connection to the fair and equitable provision of justice in historic Court Square.”
Though the project was billed in the announcement as carrying a $30 million price tag, the county’s plans also include a renovation of the existing General District Court space to become an expansion of the Circuit Court facilities, at an additional cost of $14 million. These costs have all been incorporated into the county’s Capital Improvement Program in recent years, and will be funded by county property tax dollars.
The final BOS vote was 5-1, with Supervisor Rick Randolph delivering a stirring speech in defense of his no vote. Randolph explained that he feels that the courts should be located in the county for the convenience of its citizens, and that the board’s current decision is merely delaying an inevitable later move. He also expressed concerns that “Charlottesville City Council has in recent years not demonstrated a governing capacity to attain agreements and execute them in good faith,” and therefore he doubts that the city will build the agreed-upon parking facility. Randolph ended by lauding Albemarle’s citizens and its qualities, envisioning a “shining county among the hills” with a distinct appeal all its own.
After the announcement, Mallek reflected on the years-long debate, which has spanned her entire tenure on the BOS. “For years there was no admission on the part of City Council that there was any parking problem around the courts, and no recognition that the access to court services for county residents was drastically different than that of city residents who can ride the bus or walk,” she said.
At the same time, the BOS lacked a consensus that county residents might benefit from an out-of-town courts location for ease of access and potential economic benefits to county taxpayers. “Happily, several years ago, those attitudes changed for several board members and the county began to study the possibilities (and the dollars) of moving out of town,” said Mallek. “This research sent the city and the legal community into a tizzy, but the realization that we might actually move made real negotiation possible for the very first time.”
Beyond the stronger negotiating position, Mallek believes that a significant factor in breaking the logjam on an agreement was changing the composition of the committee itself, which for years was composed of representatives of the two local governments plus others representing judges, lawyers, and local advocacy groups. “We made no progress at all,” she said, until a year ago, when the two sides changed course and simply sent two people—one executive and one attorney each from the city and county—to negotiate.
“That new leadership, each working with their own board or council, made the tight agreement we have today possible,” said Mallek. “New eyes and no baggage from old attempts have made for success.”
While the prospect of a potentially lucrative public-private partnership with commercial developers in a county location on Rt. 29 North had been promoted by some county officials as a forward-looking solution, the political reality was less rosy. Moving the General District Court building away from the Circuit Court (the “county seat”) would have required a voter referendum, delaying and increasing the expense of the project. “The county faced steep odds to get a referendum passed,” said Mallek, and local representatives to the Virginia General Assembly worked to close off other options.
Mallek pledged to continue to study the prospects of other county services being moved out to the county, but she’s pleased with the court agreement. With the city’s contribution to the building costs and parking garage, “The county saves more than ten million dollars to stay downtown,” she said. Groundbreaking for this project is expected in late 2021 with construction lasting 2 years.