GEORGETOWN — The public and community at large voiced objections. And architects designing the new Sussex County Family Courthouse listened.
Revised renderings of the $105 million, three-story, 100,000-plus-square-foot facility, bordering East Market, South Race and East Pine streets in the historic heart of Georgetown, met with tempered approval Wednesday during a 90-minute public session at Georgetown Town Hall.
“The size is staggering to begin with for downtown, but it does now lend itself more to a flow,” said Jim Bowden, president of the Georgetown Historical Society.
Designers’ initial 21st-century scheme — with glass and modern tweaks — has given way to revisions that better match existing brick buildings on The Circle, most notably the Sussex County Courthouse.
“The earlier version had more glass and some more contemporary features, a little more aggressive architecture,” said Rick Macia, an architect with CGL Companies, a firm that specializes in courthouse construction. “Now, we’ve toned it down and tried to bring in some more traditional features, more brick, less glass.”
Linda Dennis, chair of the Georgetown Planning and Zoning Commission, is pleased with the update.
“I will concede that they have made improvements, and they did listen,” she said. “And of course, the major issues about the footprint are things that are nonnegotiable. The size and the height were nonnegotiable. So there was just some tweaking, which was what the community was allowed to provide, I think.”
Mr. Bowden added, “We had taken them to task on the modern. They were perfectly happy with the modern look. The state of Delaware had signed off on it, basically. (But) the Georgetown Historical Society and the Historic Georgetown Association wrote a letter of objection to the original concept. We came to the last meeting. We gave our thoughts, and a lot of them have been incorporated in the new design.”
At more than 100,000 square feet, the new courthouse will more than triple the space of the present facility on The Circle. The current Family Court, built in 1988, was cited in a 2012 U.S. Marshals Service report for security concerns, both inside and outside the building.
“The new courthouse needs to be approximately triple the size of the original, mainly so that we can have safe and secure circulation through the building,” said Bill Lenihan, president of Tevebaugh Architecture, which is partnering with CGL Companies.
“We need to have secure circulation for detainees, for judicial officers and for the public. The current courthouse across the street does not have those elements,” he added.
Additionally, the new facility will accommodate other agencies that work with Family Court, so visitors can meet with all the groups at once. “It’s going to be a safer, more efficient, friendly experience for the community. With that comes a 100,000-plus-square-foot building,” Mr. Lenihan said.
The court’s original design, unveiled publicly in June, drew waves of pushback. Georgetown Town Councilwoman Sue Barlow minced no words at the time, calling it “the ugliest building that I have ever seen. It is absolutely ugly. It doesn’t fit. There is nothing historic about it.”
Mr. Lenihan said the firms used those statements when redesigning the blueprints.
“At our last information session, we had some comments — could we soften a few of the more modern elements, the two-story lobby and the public elevator tower?” he said. “In response, we looked at various options that you see today, showing more brick and more cast stone to tie into the adjacent Sussex County Courthouse and the other buildings that are around The Circle here.”
Mr. Bowden called revised plans to lessen glass on the entryway by muting it with brick and columns a “very nice change.” Rethinking and changing the elevator shaft, adding a clock feature and incorporating a cast-stone look “was positive,” he added.
“Also, the roofline on both the entry area and also on top of the elevator shaft was a big change,” Mr. Bowden said. “We’re tweaking some window treatments and columns, whether they should be square or round and whether columns should have embellishment at top and bottom. There are some things that we would still like to see changed, and (Mr. Macia) is taking those questions back (to the architects).”
Another eliminated sore spot was a curved element for outdoor seating that would double as a safety barrier. Mr. Bowden said safety could be incorporated with planters or other options.
“Listening to all the input and comments from the community and from folks who came to our last workshop, we’ve made some, what we think, are fairly significant changes to some of the main features of the building — the tower, the lobby, added more bricks, more stones and some more traditional elements to try to address some of the concerns expressed by our citizens,” Mr. Macia said.
Mr. Lenihan agreed and said, “We are very sensitive to this being a historic district, but the scale of this building is larger than the historic buildings. So we’ve gone through a design process, and where we have different iterations, presented to our clients, the state of Delaware, the courts and also the Georgetown community for feedback as we continue through this design process.”
In response to a parking study commissioned by the state, a six-level garage bordering East Pine Street is also part of the project. It will accommodate several hundred vehicles.
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.
The downtown site was chosen from approximately 20 options researched in a two-year feasibility study.
“This is an extremely important project for downtown Georgetown, to keep Family Court here. We’ve been working on the project since 2015,” Mr. Lenihan said. “It was unanimous to select this site, to be able to make a real courthouse campus, to be able to keep Family Court downtown and all employees downtown for the economic good of the community. But it was also for the service of the community for the courts to be in the county seat.”
Noting that some leaders are not keen on the impact to the town’s historic section, Mayor Bill West sees it as a step forward.
“I think it’s going to help. When you bring new people into town working at a new court, they are going to want to eat,” he said. “I think it’s going (to open) up new doors.”
Georgetown resident Diane Shockley said she hopes the area maintains its historic feel.
“My family, for years, has lived here in Georgetown — way back. I would just like to keep as much of the historical value of this town as we can. It means a lot to me because I know it’s our county seat. It’s beautiful around The Circle. I just want to keep the whole town that way,” said Ms. Shockley, active in the Georgetown Arts & Flowers group.
“Everything is changing. I don’t want Georgetown to change that much.”
If all goes well, groundbreaking will be in February or March. Construction is expected to take about two years, Mr. Lenihan said.
In the coming months, plans are to work with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to remove several underground storage tanks on-site and with utility companies to relocate existing services, he added.