Courthouse Expansion Is Taking Shape

The enlarged Fairfax courthouse, in the rendering above, is scheduled to be finished by the spring, allowing the courts to be located in one building.
The enlarged Fairfax courthouse, in the rendering above, is scheduled to be finished by the spring, allowing the courts to be located in one building. (Fairfax County)
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

The $115.7 million expansion of Fairfax County's main courthouse, and the consolidation of the county's courts into one building, is about two months behind schedule but is on budget and headed for an opening in the spring, county officials said last week.

The county is adding 17 courtrooms in an expansion that essentially turns the two-winged Jennings Judicial Center into a completed rectangle. Fairfax's juvenile and domestic relations court, housed in a separate building dating to 1800, will move into part of the new 316,000 square feet being added to the Jennings building, vacating a cramped and airless, if historic, building whose future has not been determined.

The vast construction site on Chain Bridge Road has made the task of entering the courthouse confusing for the several thousand people who trek there daily to resolve traffic tickets, file lawsuits, get marriage licenses and conduct real estate transactions. Complicating matters, a multi-deck parking garage next to the courthouse was closed to the public in 2004 after the Sheriff's Office determined it posed a security risk.

In the next four months, senior project engineer Magdi Imbabi said, the shape and look of the new courthouse should come into focus, as the brick facades and arches near Chain Bridge Road start to add flesh to the concrete and steel skeleton. The general contractor is the Dick Corp. of Pittsburgh.

The project has been funded by bonds approved by county voters in referendums in 1998 and 2002. County planners are trying to make the building as cost-efficient as possible, after the county was criticized for the size and amenities of its government center when it was unveiled in 1992.

For the courthouse, project manager Ellen vanHully-Bronson said, "we've gone the extra mile to make sure all the finishes are durable but not ostentatious." Besides the $115.7 million allocated for the expansion, the county will spend an additional $7 million for furnishings.

Though two sides of the building will have brick fronts, to comply with Fairfax City's request for something compatible with Old Town Fairfax, the rest will be closer in tone to the Jennings building's off-white. Tile, and carpet tile, will be used, with wainscoting on public walls to protect the drywall from the regular abuse that court participants inflict. Courtrooms will have a minimum of wood paneling, vanHully-Bronson said, with mostly drywall and fabric paneling inside.

Two of the locations most used by residents, the "public services" counter -- for licenses, permits, business filings -- and the law library, will be relocated to the first floor, next to the main entrance, to provide access after normal court hours. Also on the first floor, the commonwealth's attorney, the sheriff and the police liaison offices will move temporarily into the "new courthouse" while their current spaces are renovated.

The county hopes that the expansion will be mostly ready by March and that an occupancy permit will be issued in April. In the following three months, vanHully-Bronson said, the General District and Circuit courts can begin their move-ins, and contractors can start working on renovating parts of what she called the "old courthouse," such as the present spaces for offices for the Sheriff's Office and commonwealth's attorneys.

Of the new courtrooms, eight will go to juvenile court, four to District Court and two to Circuit Court. Three will not be finished initially and can be assigned later to the court that needs them.

The groundbreaking was in July 2004. The delays were caused mainly by minor problems with contractors, which slowed the completion of walls and roofs for parts of the building, Imbabi said. That, along with a scarcity of duct workers, delayed installation of ventilation ducts throughout the expansion, but that work is now proceeding.

"By and large, we're doing very well," Imbabi said. He said heavy equipment such as air handlers, boilers and chillers are being installed. By fall, "we should be seeing this place look very different," he said.

The renovation of electrical, heating and cooling systems of the original building will begin soon after the expansion opens in the spring. The judges had hoped to have the existing 25 courtrooms renovated as well, but money for that purpose was not included in the bond, and the county funded only two courtroom renovations in its coming budget.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company