A group of Alexandrians, complaining that the city's new courthouse could end up sandwiched between "a pizza parlor and a McDonald's," made an 11th-hour attempt last week to convince the City Council to scrap the current design for the courthouse and commercial complex on King Street.
The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the final design of the $10-million complex; if approved, construction of the underground garage at the center would begin in January.
But the latest opposition - mainly from Old Town residents led by Councilwoman Ellen Pickering - places the fate of the project in doubt.
The courthouse and commercial center, which would be in the 500 block of King Street, has been in the planning for three years. During that time citizens have squabbled about its location and whether it should be built at all. In July, Old Town residents were instrumental in forcing the modern courthouse-commercial center to be redesigned to blend in with the 18th century character of the neighborhood.
The land involved is part of the Gadsby urban renewal project, and planning of the courthouse had to conform to an intricate agreement with Gadsby Associates, the private developer selected to renovate the area. So far, the design for the city's part of the project alone has cost about $160,000, according to city officials.
The question City Council members now must face is whether the city can afford the time and money it would take to ask the architects to submit still another design. In addition, if the Council decides to delete the commercial space from the project and build only the courthouse as some have suggested, the city probably would be forced to pay damages to Gadsby Associates for breach of contract, according to some city officials.
Although residents are satisfied with the design of the courthouse itself, they object to the proposed approach to the building.
In order to avoid making that block of King Street a "dead area" commercially, the previous City Council in 1975 approved a plan that would allow the courthouse to be built behind retail space; the retail space would face directly onto King Street. Under the current design by the Alexandria architectural firm of Saunders, Cheng & Appleton, the courthouse would be approached from King Street through a broad, two-storey archway, flanked on either side by shops and offices. Through the archway, would be a long, wide arcade leading to the courthouse entrance.
Architect Joseph Saunders testified at a public hearing before the City Council Saturday that the design is "both dramatic and dignified. (It is) 120 feet from King Street to the courthouse entrance and the courthouse is clearly visible from the sidewalk."
Others testifying at the hearing disagreed. "A place of justice I have always thought was a hallowed place," Gil Zimmerman of 601 Princess St said. "Think of the Supreme Court with a commercial facade in front of it. Can we allow this place to be arched between a pizza parlor and a McDonald's? . . . I appeal to this council to not create this abomination."
Vera Nydegger, a member of the Board of Architectural Review, said the courthouse entrance should be directly on the street "where you would not have to hunt for it." Nydegger contended that the architectural board approved the latest architect's plans - the modern facade was changed to a more Georgian look - without sufficient information. "Conceivably we could end up with a building that is made of black brick, green mortar, purple trim and plastic window frames."
Charles Turner, also a member of the architectural review board, told the Council he agreed that there were some "unfortunate aspects of the design . . . But at this stage of the process - and you must recognize that it is a very intricate design and a complex contractual agreement - it would be difficult to redo without time and expense."
Paul Schott, head of general services for the city, estimates construction delays could cost $75,000 a month. Redesign costs, according to one document, could go as high as $100,000.
It is unclear now just what the City Council will do. Councilwoman Pickering, who requested the public hearing, says chances are good that the plans will be revised once again.
Mayor Frank Mann, in an interview, said he felt it was "so offensive to take a $10 or $15 million courthouse and stick it behind some commercial space, but it would be expensive to undo. In my opinion the Council has been pretty well committed by the action of the previous Council." Mann suggested, however, that it is conceivable the city could abrogate its contract with Gadsby Associates and just surround the courthouse with parkland.
Mann said at this point he can not predict what the Council will do.
In other action Saturday, the Council reversed a two-year standing decision and voted 6 to 1 allow temporary parking for Christmas shoppers on the city's historic waterfront. The parking lot is on the Virginia Concrete site, just behind the Seaport Inn which was bought by the city for development of a park.
Councilwoman Pickering, who said she feared even temporary parking could jeopardize the eventual use of the site for a park, cast the only no vote.