Originally created 01/19/01

City weighs options on judicial site



Augusta's existing judicial offices and courtrooms are undersized, inefficient and - in the case of the dilapidated district attorney's office - borderline unsafe.

The answer: a $40 million judicial center complex that consolidates the county's legal offices into a single, updated facility, allowing far-flung branches of the consolidated government to move into the municipal building.

Funding for the project is in place, thanks to sales tax revenue. But the big question during the past several months has been this: Where will the facility be built?

"No final site has been selected," said Walter Hornsby, interim city manager.

The firm hired by downtown revitalization group Augusta Tomorrow Inc. hopes county officials settle on the half-vacant city block just west of the U.S. District Courthouse and Barrett Plaza, near the corner of Ninth and Telfair streets.

"That's our number one site in the report," said Don Hilderbrandt, design director for LDR International. "My contention is that it is within one block of the (Augusta-Richmond County) Civic Center parking lot that sits empty most of the time."

Ownership of the land is split among three private individuals and Augusta-Richmond County, whose quarter-acre parcel is the largest on the block. More than half the property is vacant, the rest is occupied by the abandoned James Hotel building.

A parking deck could also be constructed near the facility, on land owned by private individuals, the report states. Officials estimate it would cost nearly $4 million to acquire all necessary property.

LDR International said the judicial center at that location would serve as a good bookend for the Barrett Plaza green space next to the Federal Courthouse.

The synergy between the two facilities would create a "judicial district" of sorts, that would likely stimulate revitalization of the surrounding buildings, many of which are also abandoned and ailing.

The proposed site is just down Ninth Street from the county's central library facility, which is slated to become the U.S. Bankruptcy Court if the library relocates to Broad Street, as is planned under the third phase of the Augusta Common project.

Eight other sites were identified as candidates for the judicial center, including the Exchange Club Fairgrounds off Laney-Walker Boulevard and the 600 block of Greene Street.

That property, owned primarily by First Presbyterian Church, is in the midst of negotiations for a land-swap deal that would give the church a parcel in what is currently the civic center parking lot in exchange for lots it owns north of Telfair.

Church officials referred comment on the negotiations to their attorney, who did not return a message left Thursday afternoon.

Whether or not the land-swap occurs, the state-level judges, led by Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr., will have the final say in the judicial center's location.

"If Judge Fleming likes the site, then that will be the site," Mr. Hilderbrandt said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.