County’s $70M judicial center project would add 70,000 square feet of space, one courtroom

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center is pictured on Nov. 27, 2023.

When it comes to a possible expansion of the county’s Judicial and Law Enforcement Center in downtown Lawrence, 70s are wild.

First, the estimated project cost for the renovation and expansion of the building near the county courthouse at 11th and Massachusetts is $70 million

Second, the amount of new space that would be added to the building is 70,000 square feet.

Third, the project, when completed, would make the building about 70% larger than it is today.

But a different number may attract the attention of some county residents who are trying to figure the value of the project, which county commissioners have not yet approved but will further discuss next month. That number: 1.

That’s how many new courtrooms the $70 million project will add to the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Rising caseloads in Douglas County have been one of the selling points for a major project at the center. But the one new courtroom — likely to be about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet in size, plus office space for a judge and staff — is not doing much to add to the overall size of the building.

However, the project may produce a lot of new courtroom space. While the number of courtrooms would grow only from nine to 10 in the concept plans that currently are under review, the size of each courtroom could grow substantially.

The county’s architects, Lawrence-based TreanorHL, estimates traditional courtrooms should be 1,800 square feet. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told me this week that a majority of the county’s existing courtrooms are 1,000 square feet or less.

In other words, many of the county’s courtrooms may be in line for an 80% expansion.

In terms of why the county’s courtrooms need to grow that much, it seems to have more to do with benchmarks rather than a lack of benches, so to speak. I asked Plinsky if the county had data on how many times the existing courtrooms have been at capacity for a trial. Alternatively, I asked if there is some other metric that better shows the need for larger courtrooms.

Plinsky didn’t offer any numbers for how often courtrooms have been at capacity, and the only other metric she talked about was the “national best practices” that have been provided by the architect. Those are 1,800 square feet for courtrooms that host jury trials and 1,200 square feet for courtrooms that host smaller hearings.

I don’t doubt that those are the current, national benchmarks, but it will be interesting to watch how much those benchmarks evolve in the near future as the nature of court proceedings evolve. Will court proceedings become much more remote in nature, with witnesses appearing via video? Will crowds watch proceedings from afar rather than sitting in a gallery? Even if those changes do happen, would they save any room, given that the courtroom may need more space for cameras, monitors and other such equipment?

I really have no idea on those issues, or for that matter, whether courtrooms need to be significantly larger than they are today. Like most people, I don’t spend a lot of time in the local courtrooms. We all may have to decide how much research we want to do on this front. Maybe it would be worth the time to go inside a courtroom and try to picture it 80% larger.

However, I would urge you to be careful about your research methods. Some ways of entering a courtroom are definitely better than others. Regardless, here’s a look at some other details that caught my eye as I reviewed the judicial and law enforcement proposals under consideration by commissioners.

• Undersized even when new. The concept that is getting the most consideration from commissioners currently would add 70,000 square feet of space to the existing Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, and also would remodel about 54,000 square feet of the existing 100,000 square foot building. That project has about a $70 million price tag, and is considered Phase I of the project.

Phase II, as we reported last week, wouldn’t happen until about 15 years from now. It involves moving the sheriff’s office, 911 dispatch and the county’s emergency management center to a new building to be constructed out by the Douglas County jail. That, in turn, would allow for two more courtrooms to be added to the building.

But that Phase II is so far on the horizon that is difficult to know whether it would ever become a reality, especially if inflation continues to run hot. Last week we reported the inflation on the 15 year project could increase costs by $50 million to $60 million.

That may mean Phase I is what the county will live with for a long time. If so, it is important to note that the architects are projecting the county would outgrow the 70,000 square foot expansion in less than five years. The architects are projecting the county would need about a 185,000 square foot building within five years, but the Phase I project would only expand the building to 170,000 square feet.

However, architectural projections are subjective. One could debate, based on historical growth rates and using slightly different benchmarks, that the county won’t need that much space. Regardless, it is an issue commissioners likely will have to wrestle with. To build more space without increasing taxes could be difficult.

• Office space vs hallways. If commissioners move ahead with the project, there will be departments in the JLEC that will get bigger offices. But it is a little hard to say how much and which ones, at this point. That won’t become clear until actual design work begins. Before design work begins, a decision is going to have to be made about how large of a priority additional office space is versus additional hallways and corridors.

There are some numbers in the concept plans that suggest more than 40% of the building could be devoted to hallways, corridors and lobby spaces. I don’t have a good estimate of what that percentage is for the existing building, but it is not that much.

Plinsky told me that a good amount of the new construction could be devoted to spaces like hallways, corridors and lobbies. A primary reason would be safety. Today, the public, defendants in custody and staff of the JLEC often use the same corridors. There are times you don’t want those people passing in the halls. When the JLEC was built nearly 50 years ago, such design considerations weren’t often priorities.

“Safety and security are paramount and driving factors on this building renovation,” Plinsky said via email. “Unfortunately, courthouses today have significantly larger safety and security issues than courthouses built in the 1970s. Keeping the public, inmates and judges and staff separate so they can stay safe means more hallways and corridors. We have seen issues regionally and nationally where the public and judges have been attacked and hurt, as a result of older, non-separated circulation system for courthouses.”

• Parking. This project is in downtown Lawrence, after all, so you knew parking had to be a subject at some point. The concept plan shows the 70,000-square foot expansion coming off the southern edge of the existing building. That makes it likely that the expansion would stretch into a portion of the large surface parking lot that serves the JLEC and the adjacent County Courthouse.

Thus far, the concept plans don’t really address how much parking might be lost, nor how the county would replace it. Parking already is often full at the courthouse lot. With an addition, you could expect a 10% to 15% increase in the number of trials and court hearings at the center, given the addition of one courtroom. Also, the county’s plans project about 50 additional employees at the center during the next five years, which also will add to parking demand.


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