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Goodbye, Old Courthouse

Prep for move to new facility met with nostalgia from court, county staff

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While many employees set to move into a new facility early next year seek to benefit from the approved amenities, security and functionality that come with a more modern facility, Pima County Consolidated Justice Court Administrator Doug Kooi has more low-maintenance requirements: He's anticipating the moment every morning that he can wash out his coffee cup in an actual kitchen, rather than a public restroom.

"In the new courthouse, there will be a little break counter," Kooi says. "It's the small stuff, right? I look forward to not washing my coffee cup in a men's room."

The seemingly minor perk has been a long time coming: The process for the move officially began a decade ago during a 2004 bond election when Pima County voters approved $76 million—about half of the now $140 million budget—for the new courthouse facility. The impending transition has prompted a response that is equal parts anticipatory and sentimental from the county government entities making the move to 240 N. Stone Ave., including the courts and the Pima County Treasurer, Recorder, and Assessor's offices.

The offices and courts currently occupy what is colloquially known as the Old Pima County Courthouse at North Church Avenue and West Pennington Street in downtown Tucson, and many of the courthouse's employees can't help but feel reluctant to leave a building with such a historic reputation. Completed in 1929 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the courthouse's mosaic-tiled dome remains an iconic image of Pima County and frequently serves as its official logo. The Pima County Superior Court, County Sheriff and County Board of Supervisors have also called the courthouse home at one point in the last 80-plus years.

While those offices have long since moved to other facilities in the downtown area, the justice courts, treasurer, recorder and assessor have remained even as the demand for their services skyrocketed in recent decades. Kooi estimates that as many as 500,000 people annually access the court facilities alone, and adds that it's common to see a line down the stairs and into the courthouse plaza on a weekday morning.

"We've just overwhelmed this building," Kooi says, adding that the staff and court patrons probably exceed the legal occupancy level of the building "all the time."

He adds that the security staff regularly confiscates weapons and narcotics at the courthouse, but acknowledges that the staff is "much better than (it) ever used to be" about reducing the frequency of such incidents. He expects this positive trend will no doubt continue at the new facility.

"We have to have a very alert security staff, whereas the new building that we're moving into was designed with security in mind, and it's going to be swipe cards and limited access," Kooi says.

These security enhancements will include increased separation between the judges, juries and the public. In the current courthouse, judges or jury members often find themselves walking alongside or sharing the same elevator as the defendant they might have just convicted, but the new facility will have designated entrances, hallways and elevators for each party.

Pima County Consolidated Justice Court Associate Presiding Judge Carmen Dolny says innovations to security will allow for heightened economic convenience as well. Improved technology in the new facility will permit the court to utilize video communications, such as Skype, to bring testimony before the court from those who may be already incarcerated so that they do not have to be transported to the courtroom at the county's expense.

"It'll have modern design that is meant to be practical and fulfill all the functions that a court needs to deal with on a daily basis," Dolny says. "I think a lot of people are going to be happy about that."

Having worked at the old courthouse for 17 years, however, Dolny personifies how conflicting emotions continue to affect preparation for the move. She says she enjoys every aspect of the building and would be content remaining there for the rest of her career, but acknowledges that there is a compelling argument for the move considering how much the county's needs have grown during her time at the court.

"We do a lot of cases each year, and our population keeps rising," Dolny says. "There are more police officers out on the street, there are more inhabitants in the town ... so, it probably is a necessary thing that we finally move into larger quarters."

Dolny says her hope is that the courthouse will continue to be used in a manner that encourages public access, a common sentiment being addressed by the county in a current process with the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee. If all goes to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's plan, a bond election tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2015 will include a request of $35 million to renovate and restore the old courthouse building. The request also seeks inclusion of space on the ground floor of the building for a Tucson Museum of Art exhibit, as well as a memorial for the victims and survivors, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, of the shooting on Jan. 8, 2011.

The county has also proposed that the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Clerk of the Board and Huckelberry's office relocate to the second and third floors of the old courthouse after its renovation, "complete with modern security provisions, communication technology and energy-saving facility systems," according to a December project proposal.

In a February meeting, Bond Advisory Committee Chairman Larry Hecker stated that rehabbing the building and updating its utility systems in order to build the museum exhibit would cost approximately $19 million, while renovation of the second and third floors for county offices would run a bill of about $10 million. The remainder of the $35 million request would cover the Jan. 8 memorial costs and renovation of the nearby El Presidio Park.

An official approval of the project by the Board of Supervisors likely won't occur until this fall at the earliest if the Bond Advisory Committee gives its recommendation, according to Diana Durazo, a special staff assistant to Huckelberry and one of the coordinators for the bond project. Durazo says that while Huckelberry can hardly guarantee that the project will be approved by the bond committee, supervisors, or, subsequently, the voters, alternative fund sources will continue to be explored by the county to complete the renovation.

"Other funding sources ... whether it's federal or historic grants or any of these other kinds of programs, everything's been hit recently," Durazo says. "So it would be very, very difficult to get it done, but it's not something that the county would want that this building remain abandoned and closed-up and not rehabbed."

Durazo says the county will seek to preserve one room in particular: the notorious Courtroom Eight, the oldest working courtroom in Southern Arizona. Court employees have worked to keep the courtroom's historic features, including its domed ceiling, metal grillwork and original judge's bench, as unblemished as possible—so much so that Kooi says he once hired a maintenance company at his own expense to do upkeep on its mahogany woodwork.

The courtroom has garnered its fair share of fame over the years: Those who have crossed its threshold include infamous gangster John Dillinger and his cohorts, Johnny Depp (who ironically played Dillinger years after he landed in Courtroom Eight for a reckless driving charge) and Jan. 8 shooter Jared Lee Loughner for a drug paraphernalia charge. A rack still sits by the entrance for court patrons to hang their cowboy hats, a lingering reminder of Tucson's not-too-distant Old West and Mexican territory-tinged past.

While "convenience" seems to be the shared benefit of the move, the actual planning, design and construction process of the new facility has been anything but. After voters originally approved the project 10 years ago, the county selected AECOM Technology Corporation as the project architect and Sundt Construction, a Tempe-based company, as the general contractor.

Gary Campbell, the asset management and planning division manager for the Pima County Facilities Management Department, helped lead the project from the beginning. The planning, which commenced in 1997, set the monetary parameters of the bond request, and once it was given a green light, the design process took about a year. But when the construction crew arrived to start clearing the site, located near an old cemetery, an unexpected complication arose.

"Back in 1867 ... the mayor had it published that everyone should have their loved ones moved to a new cemetery because part of the cemetery plot was going to be used for the railroad, so we really had no idea what was under there," Campbell says. "We were hoping not to find too many (remains), but we ended up finding close to 1,200."

The county called in an archeologist to properly excavate the remains in November 2006, and because there were no official records as to who was buried there, they had to seek permission from area Indian tribes and churches beforehand, Campbell says. The excavation process added about a year-and-a-half to the project's timeline, and also put "a big dent" in the budget, he adds.

Already aware that the original budget of $76 million would surely be exceeded, the county faced another challenge after officially breaking ground in February 2012. While the plan had been for the county and city to both occupy space in the new facility, the city withdrew from the project shortly after construction began. Campbell says this set the process back about another year as the county determined how to fill the space formerly designated to city offices, and city-county relations, expectedly enough, suffered as a result.

"We never had a signed agreement, what we had was a process that we were jointly going through," Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik says. "And I'm frankly the one that kind of raised the red flag that the way the deal was being structured was beginning to not make sense from a city standpoint, from a taxpayers' standpoint."

Kozachik says he met with Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, and eventually, Huckelberry, to discuss whether the project was "fair" to city taxpayers once the budget swelled far beyond its original budget. His qualms were that taxpayers "were being treated as two separate groups of people," when those living in Tucson were already paying to fund the project as Pima County residents.

He adds that the county then proceeded with construction without finalizing the terms of the deal, and that when city administration concluded that they didn't have the funds to proceed with the project as is, the county "was left standing there holding the bags."

"When the voters approved these bonds, they weren't approving a shell of a building, they were approving a project," Kozachik says. "There were multiple moving parts of problems with this thing and I don't at all for a second take the point that the city walked away from a preordained deal."

He says the city tentatively plans to make minor improvements to its courts facility at 103 E. Alameda St. in the wake of the change of plans and "will keep doing that until another option comes up," but adds that the city also must do its fair share to rebuild its relationship with the county.

"One of the biggest flaws in economic development for this region is that the city and the county are competitors, and they ought to be collaborating," Kozachick says. "It is an unfortunate symptom of this region that the players don't know how to play well together."

Months after the fallout, however, the process is "back on schedule" with only interior improvements and final touches remaining. The remainder of the project budget that wasn't covered by the sale of bonds was paid for by county general fund reserves and certificates of participation, a form of financing that doesn't require voter approval, Campbell says.

The county has spent approximately $100 million of the projected $140 million allotted, and Campbell says he anticipates that the full budget will be used before the justice courts move in and become operational around Feb. 1. While a small portion of the budget—about $317,000­—went towards installing a 623-square-foot public art project known as the "Desert Mosaic" that changes its color and lighting patterns when caught by the sun, Campbell says the building's functional purpose overwhelms its aesthetics.

"There's nothing emblazoned on it that says this is a courthouse, and that came up in the design process: 'What does a courthouse look like?'" Campbell adds. "Even in Tucson the best image is the old courthouse. To me, that says, 'This is a government building.'"

Perhaps the most optimistic, and rather paradoxically, most wistful employee of all in that building is Kooi, who also stands to lose a part of his professional identity when he moves to the new building. While Kooi has worked in the building for only eight years after moving over from the Pima County Superior Court building down the street, he'll soon assume the title as the old courthouse's last administrator.

Once everyone settles in after the move, the volume and procedural process of work will remain consistent, Kooi says, but the staff's sense of solidarity with Tucson's history will be swapped out for the benefit of inaugurating a state-of-the-art facility.

It's a mixed blessing, to be sure, but an inevitable one.

"It is, but ... such is life," Kooi says. "We're moving forward and looking back."

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