GEORGETOWN — The challenge with designing the massive new Sussex County Family Court is blending similarity to existing historic structures in downtown Georgetown with a 21st-century scheme.
The mission, Tevebaugh Architecture President William Lenihan said, is that “the details of the character, the proportions, the materials, look like they really belong, but when … looking at the details, you can obviously tell that this is a newer edition.”
Rick Macia of CGL Companies agreed.
“For us, it was very important that the building was compatible but differentiated, that it was respectful of the historic context, but it was clearly a 21st-century building — a building that looks forward instead of looking backwards.”
Plans for the courthouse — a three-story, 100,000-square-foot complex, bordering South Race, East Market and East Pine streets in the heart of Georgetown — were presented Wednesday to Georgetown’s mayor, Town Council and Planning Commission.
It will replace the antiquated facility built in 1988 that stands on The Circle.
The proposed design, however, did not appeal to some.
“This is the ugliest building that I have ever seen. It is absolutely ugly,” said Georgetown Councilwoman Sue Barlow, who added that it just “doesn’t fit. There is nothing historic about it. I am thoroughly disappointed.”
Linda Dennis, chairperson of Georgetown’s Planning Commission, echoed Councilwoman Barlow’s view, agreeing that the renderings don’t work well with current buildings.
“That is my concern, that it will stand out as a sore thumb,” she said.
In 2006, a state study determined that Family Courts in both Kent and Sussex counties were “inadequate,” which is the lowest rating, according to Michael K. Newell, chief judge of the Family Court for the state.
Then, in 2012, a report by the U.S. Marshals Service cited safety concerns inside and outside the current Sussex County Family Court structure, including security issues within the building, Judge Newell said.
Solutions were sought.
“You may recall that there was some suggestion that perhaps there could be one Family Court building located in Milford, somewhat equally distanced, I guess, between Kent County and Sussex County. And for very many reasons, that just would not work,” Judge Newell said.
Then, there was a two-year feasibility study, and approximately 20 different sites were researched, including some out along U.S. 113 in Georgetown, Mr. Lenihan said.
“At end of day, everyone concluded that they wanted to keep the courthouse downtown,” he added.
At 100,000 square feet, the new Sussex complex will more than triple the existing space of the present facility on The Circle.
Proposed features include a lobby area, a main entrance plaza, green space along Market Street, sally port entrances and a curved element that will provide outdoor seating, as well as plenty of natural light.
“It is, after all, a public building, where important matters are held, but more importantly, (it should be) welcoming particularly to these visitors and families under stress,” Mr. Macia said. “One way is providing abundant natural light.”
Planning also is ongoing for adjacent parking and a parking garage.
New facilities in Sussex and Kent will each have at least eight courtrooms, with an average size between 1,400 and 1,800 square feet, making the courtrooms safer and more dignified for litigants, staff and other participants, as it allows for more separation between opposing parties.
The projected cost for the new Sussex County court is $90 million. “We are planning to break ground later this year,” said Deputy State Court Administrator Evelyn Nestlerode.
Construction is projected to take about two years.
Once vacated, the current courthouse will be repurposed as the Justice of the Peace Court and for some offices for state agencies, Mr. Lenihan said.
“We have really studied and are very familiar with the design construction standards for the town of Georgetown and the design guidelines for East Market Street,” he added.
Comments from the public during Wednesday’s council meeting will be considered.
“We are very open to hearing all comments, all concerns. This is your community. We want to work with you. We want all members of this community to be very proud of this structure,” said Mr. Lenihan. “The main thing with this structure (is that) this is a 100,000-square-foot building, … and we are trying to place a very large structure that is required to be that size in a historic community. So the mass of the building is much larger than any of the other adjacent structures. We recognize that.”
He continued, “We are trying to incorporate elements on the facade to reduce the scale of the building by stepping the building back in some areas. We also realize that this actually needs to be a building for the 21st century. The court needs to look forward but, at the same time, reflect the community that it is part of.”
Mr. Lenihan noted that a building of this scale is not like one built in the 1800s.
“We also recognize that, because of the scale of this building, we cannot apply the exact same fine detailing at the same scale that may be at a building across the street,” he said. “That’s the balance we are trying to strive.”