Behind the Headlines: Towny Anderson: Justice center a downtown asset
April 24, 2004
Q. In 2002, Routt County asked voters to approve a bond issue to pay for the construction of a new judicial center and parking facility in downtown Steamboat Springs. Did you support that proposal? Why or why not?
A. First, Routt County asked voters to increase debt “for the purpose of constructing a judicial facility.” Period. Some of us felt strongly about the importance of keeping the court facilities downtown. Others could not justify the cost and size. None of us voted against the location. Most of us expected that the county would come back to the community with a tighter plan that cost less money, not a new location.
Q. Friends of the Justice Center Inc. has opposed the county’s decision to build a justice center west of downtown, but the group’s opposition didn’t emerge until nearly six months after the county made its decision. Where was the Friends of the Justice Center when the county was going through the process of gathering input on the construction of a new justice center?
A. Members were involved with the original effort that started in 1993 and culminated in the 2002 bond vote. Several of us participated in the commissioners’ post-election hearings. The Army Corps of Engineers’ public comment period started in late November 2003. It was the first opportunity for public involvement since the commissioners took the location decision into their own hands, chose a site with locally significant wetlands, and misrepresented the facts in their application to the Corps to justify filling the wetlands. (Incidentally, the Corps of Engineers advised the county not to purchase the land until the permitting process had been completed).
Q. Friends of the Justice Center argues that building the justice center west of downtown unnecessarily moves government functions out of downtown, which is contrary to the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan. But isn’t it true that most of the essential county functions — all except the court system — will remain in the existing courthouse?
A. This question sidesteps a core issue: “Public buildings that generate community activity and social life are more critical to a downtown than are more routine government office buildings.” (i) There is an inherent inter-relationship between the county’s offices and the county’s courthouse. For example, offices such as probation and social services work closely with the courts. Arianthe Stettner has compared our downtown to a living organism. After you cut off too many vital limbs, the organism can’t survive.
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Q. The county has said it will cost $3.5 million to $4 million more to build the justice center downtown. If this is accurate, why should voters pay more for a downtown site?
A. Arguably, the hard construction cost difference between the two sites should only be the difference between a multilevel parking garage and surface parking, less the cost to fill the wetlands. The city has indicated a clear willingness and interest in working with the county to make “the downtown location not just a ‘practicable alternative,’ but rather the ‘obvious choice’ for Routt County citizens.” (ii) This sentiment is reinforced by a planning expert: “Public buildings have prestige or ‘flagship’ value in our communities. Their location and design (are) vitally important to the health and well-being of cities and towns. … For those who argue that cost should be the overriding factor, consider (this observation): ‘A cynic is a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.'” (iii)
Q. One of the reasons voters were opposed to the downtown site in the 2002 election was the proposed parking garage. Can you build a downtown courthouse without such a facility?
A. Whether there should be a parking facility is the purview of the city, and in letters to the county commissioners and the Army Corps of Engineers, the City Council clearly has indicated a willingness to visit this issue.
Q. If you had been a county commissioner, how might you have handled the justice center decision differently?
A. As a signatory to the 1995 Community Plan, the issue would have been not whether the court facilities would be built downtown, but simply how. We would have vigorously supported the considerable work that had been done by the court facilities committees dating back to 1993. The pre-election survey told us that the electorate was going to express its frustration with rising taxes by voting no on the courthouse. The post-election survey verified it. Reaching out to the city after the election in a spirit of collaboration easily could have reduced the cost. Certificates of Participation combined with our unrestricted county reserves were (and are) available to the downtown site. It is always more difficult to build downtown than on the outskirts, and downtown sites require a much higher degree of collaboration and cooperation. That is why the Community Plan devoted a full section to the importance of government institutions to our community. We all failed, and in the absence of a collaborative, shared vision, and the courage to pursue it, the commissioners defaulted to the jail site — a classic example of why sprawl happens.
Q. In your opinion, what will be the fallout of a justice center west of downtown?
A. The unintended consequences are so painfully foreseeable. Because there is more commerce at the courthouse than most people realize, there will be hidden costs to the taxpayers in lost efficiency. Thus, the county will not sustain two campuses over a long period of time, and the most recent investment will draw future investments. The downtown campus will lose out. Attorneys eventually will move their offices adjacent to the courthouse (witness the medical offices and services moving in proximity to the new hospital campus). Ancillary services and businesses will build around the court and jail. The city and its residents will pay a hefty bill to reinvent and revitalize the downtown. Experience has shown that when public institutions leave, the fabric knitting downtown together will unravel. If we are not good stewards of our assets — and our downtown is a big one — the long-term costs to our community will be far greater than the purported short-term cost difference between the two sites.
(i) Philip Langdon, Public Buildings Keep Town Centers Alive, Planning Commissioners Journal, #49, Winter 2003
(ii) Letter from the City Council to Routt County Board of County Commissioners dated April 7, 2004
(iii) Edward T. McMahon, Public Buildings Should Set the Standard, Planning Commissioners Journal, #41 Winter 2001