Forsyth County commissioners will be asked later this month to approve the schematic design for a new courthouse, jail and two parking decks in downtown Cumming.
During a meeting Wednesday morning, the SPLOST VII Jail/Courthouse Project team recommended the commission approve the plans, which call for a five-story courthouse and a jail with four levels, one of which would be a basement. The vote could come Feb. 26.
The projects were approved by voters in November 2011 as part of an extension of the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST VII, which includes about $100 million for the facilities.
Project manager Joe Lee said approving the plan will help the project stay on schedule, but in no way locks in on every aspect of the plan, which remains fluid.
County Manager Doug Derrer called the design a “work in progress.”
“There will be not only some changes made toward the front of the courthouse … but also the jail, so that these buildings tie in nicely to the downtown area and they complement each other.”
Doug Shaw, an architect with Wakefield Beasley, presented the plan for the courthouse, including the brick and precast for the exterior, as well as a floor-by-floor breakdown.
“It’s kind of a classic look to the building and I think it’s going to have a timeless effect on the downtown,” Shaw said.
According to Shaw, the first floor would include a jury assembly room, clerk of court office and public space. The second floor would be used by prosecutorial functions, the solicitor, grand jury and district attorney, as well as victims’ assistance.
Just half of the fourth floor would be built out and that space would be designated for the State Court and support staff.
The fifth floor would house four courtrooms for Superior Court use.
Shaw pointed out the third floor saying “there’s not a whole lot drawn there and that’s by design.”
“You’ve got a full floor that is totally unfurnished that will provide you a whole lot of flexibility in the future of what your needs are,” he said. “Whatever makes sense for the functions in the building … we kind of reshuffled the building and I think it was a big improvement.”
Throughout each level of the courthouse, there would be a high-security area where inmates could be taken back and forth without access to the general public.
Plans call for the courthouse to be attached to the jail by a bridge over East Maple Street, which Superior Court Judge Jeff Bagley said is a crucial component for safety and cutting costs.
The plan did not include a command center as requested by Sheriff Duane Piper, but Shaw noted that’s something the next phase of the design could include.
Piper also made a suggestion for the new jail, proposing that its location be swapped with the parking lot. This would require the current jail be leveled prior to constructing the new jail — something not currently planned.
According to Piper, the sheriff’s office could absorb the cost of housing prisoners elsewhere to make the change he said would help with safety and aesthetics, noting the jail population has actually declined over the years.
“I just wanted to make sure the whole group was thinking about that jail is going to be on the street,” Piper said.
But a change in location would also mean an extension of the bridge, which would push the project over budget.
“The benefit to having that bridge and to not having to transport prisoners to the courthouse is so huge in my opinion, for both the safety standpoint and an efficiency standpoint,” Bagley said. “I think it’s worth having the urban look.”
Architect Gary Retel went over the design of the jail, which he said was crafted to make it a backdrop to the new courthouse and not an eyesore.
Because of the grading, Retel said the first floor of the facility could be designed as a basement, so the jail would actually be lower than the courthouse.
“We want it to definitely not detract from the courthouse in any way,” he said. “We’ve done everything we could to make this building as unobtrusive as possible. We put it in the hole so to speak … and we set it back so that it’s not infringing on the courthouse.”
The basement level would have a loading dock, as well as space for the kitchen, laundry room and other services. There would also be room for 32 beds for jail workers.
The building would contain a magistrate courtroom so prisoners could make a first appearance before a judge without having to be transferred.
There still would be a separate Magistrate Court, slated to occupy the existing courthouse along with Probate Court, once the construction projects are finished.
The new jail would also have holding cells, space for a clinic and psychological counseling, as well as several recreational yards, six maximum security units, a staff gym and training areas.
Female and male cell units would be kept separate, with no visibility between them.
Retel said the entrance to the jail is designed to look similar to a glass and metal storefront, which would blend in with nearby businesses.
The plan also calls for windows visible from the outside, where staff members would be stationed.
In addition to approving the preliminary design to be sent to the county commission, the planning team also agreed to name the new building the Forsyth County Courthouse, with the existing courthouse to be named the Forsyth County Courthouse Annex. The names also await the commission’s blessing.