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Wheels grind slowly for courthouse upgrades

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HUDSON–“…With liberty and justice for all,” says the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance.

It would seem that for there to be justice for all, everyone has to be able to get into the places where justice is dispensed, like the Columbia County Courthouse. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) underscores that right.

But the process of making the 103-year-old, historically significant courthouse handicapped accessible has been in the works since about 2003, when the federal Department of Justice and the county reached a settlement on bringing all county-owned buildings into compliance, according to County Public Works Commissioner David Robinson.

Under the current timetable, the County Courthouse will become ADA compliant by sometime in late 2012 or early 2013.

The back and forth that has been ongoing between county officials and the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) for the past several years, is not just about making the courthouse at 401 Union Street handicapped accessible; it is also about bringing it up to current court system standards.

Based on cost estimates at this time, with 60% of the design phase complete, the price tag for the entire project will be about $7 million, Mr. Robinson told The Columbia Paper last week.

Though “very detailed” cost estimates accompany each step in the design phase, Mr. Robinson noted that there is still no guarantee about the final cost. “I wouldn’t want to hang my hat on the numbers in the middle of the project,” he said.

Current court system standards involve not only ADA accessibility but also aspects like proper prisoner circulation within the building, adequate attorney/client conference rooms, space for offices and filing — all areas in which the county courthouse has been deemed deficient, according to William Clark, OCA counsel on capital projects, who spoke with The Columbia Paper in October.

“This is really the responsibility of the municipality to put this all together,” District Executive Carol Schongar of the Third Judicial District, said in a phone interview. Her office handles the administration of court facilities in seven New York State counties including Columbia.

Ms. Schongar said her office acts as sort of an overseer and manager for municipalities on facility issues. While the OCA does not design court facilities, it has human resources such as architects who review localities’ plans and designs to make sure they meet requirements. Different considerations are applied to renovated facilities versus new facilities. The OCA is also a liaison between the users of the courts and the municipalities responsible for them, she said.

Columbia County owns the courthouse and is obligated to provide a court system that is “suitable and sufficient,” said Mr. Clark, noting that the county has to hire its own consultants and finance the project.

Mr. Clark said design plans at the 60% completion level were submitted to the OCA over the summer. The OCA reviewed the submission, made comments and is now awaiting the county’s response, which involves incorporating the OCA’s comments into the drawings. “We don’t dictate, we do provide guidance with respect to the design,” said Mr. Clark.

The courthouse construction project includes a handicapped access ramp that rises from ground level at each side of the front of the courthouse, leading up to the front entry (see accompanying drawing), an interior elevator and a 7,200-square-foot addition off the back of the building.

Commissioner Robinson said by email that “over the past few years the county has spent considerable time renovating various rooms and undertaking various pieces of work at the courthouse. Each time we do work at the courthouse we make a commitment to keeping our work consistent with the period of the building,” which was built in 1907 and designed by a “renown[ed]” architectural firm of the time Warren and Wetmore.

Mr. Robinson said that the courthouse is “one of the most architecturally significant buildings the county owns.” The County Clerk’s Office at 560 Warren Street, was also designed by the firm.

The county’s architects, Lothrop Associates, have done such a “fabulous job at matching the 1907 architecture” that the new ramps appear to be part of the original design, Mr. Robinson said.

The design of the courthouse is expected to be 90% complete during the first quarter of 2011 followed by another review by the OCA.

The project will be put out for bids and construction will start during the second quarter of 2011. Though he has not gotten as far as mapping out the sequence of construction, Mr. Robinson noted that court proceedings will be ongoing, and the construction is expected take an 15 months to complete, which would put the finish date near the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013.

Restoration work at the courthouse has been ongoing for several years with the period repainting of the main second floor courtroom and the removal and acid washing of the dome skylight in that room.

Also on the second floor, the law library and its original bookshelves have been restored as well as original sconce lighting. Drop ceilings have been removed and plaster moldings have been rebuilt.

The second floor courtroom, which formerly served as the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, has also been restored to its original elegance.

All the restoration work that has been done thus far has been in areas that will not be affected by the new construction project. And with the exception of the skylight cleaning, Mr. Robinson said all the restoration has been done with “county forces.”

He could not give a cost estimate of the work done so far, but did say that the county has received reimbursements for the work.

Back at the OCA, Mr. Clark said that getting the courthouse up to current standards is something “we hope would be resolved as quickly as possible. No one has carved a line in the sand, but we hope the building will be brought into compliance as expeditiously as possible. We’re being patient but firm,” he said noting the OCA and the county are working “cooperatively” and despite the difficult financial times, the project is advancing.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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