Saturday, November 29, 2003
Townsend H. Anderson
Special to the Pilot & Today
Let's review the process that brought us to the contradictory, indefensible, and, what is arguably a public trust-busting decision to locate the new judicial facility west of town.
The original proposal sited the judicial facility on the corner of Oak and Sixth streets, expanding the County Courthouse and offices campus. Brought to the voters in November 2002, the proposed bond to fund the facility was defeated. The reasons cited for voting against the "courthouse proposal" were size and cost (36 percent), raising taxes (25 percent), location (24 percent), parking (9 percent), and other or no opinion (4 percent and 2 percent respectively).
This was hardly a mandate to change the location.
The county commissioners reconstituted the justice center steering committee and, in the absence of any enlightened leadership and skillful facilitation, turned their attention to a different location of the facility, despite a letter from City Council respectfully asking the commissioners to honor the 1995 Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan.
After abandoning their support for the 1995 plan and selecting the jail site over the downtown site on a 2-1 vote, the commissioners decided to forgo another bond in favor of securing certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. It was widely agreed that the likelihood of another bond failure was too high. This, of course, begs the question why the commissioners did not opt for the certificates of participation and continue their commitment to the downtown site. This question looms large particularly since there was no decisive majority of participants favoring one site.
The city of Steamboat Springs insisted that the county meet the full parking requirement for the facility. The parking garage attached to the judicial facility undoubtedly contributed to the negative response to the design, and it certainly contributed to the negative response to the cost and size.
An alternative that was not explored was setting aside the monetary difference between surface parking and deck or multilevel parking in an endowment fund and providing a monthly financial incentive to county employees who used the city's public bus system 80 percent of the business days of that month. This makes sense because the city has a substantial investment in public transit. The transportation patterns of this community might actually change in 10 years with this incentive in place. If our local government is not setting the example in transportation initiatives, who should be? And if not now, when?
Another, more traditional alternative was to build an off-site public parking facility to the benefit of the entire downtown business district. This might have attracted cooperation from the city and the business community, obvious beneficiaries of a multiple user facility. Remember, the parking problem in downtown is largely caused by employees and business owners.
County officials have commented that the design of the justice center was incompatible with the character of the neighborhood. Having spent the majority of my professional life in the historic preservation field, I have witnessed numerous difficult infill and streetscape challenges that have been met with award-winning buildings. Surely we can find an architect in Colorado who can create a fitting courthouse for Steamboat Springs' Sixth Street. This is a design issue, not a location issue.
Safety was cited as one of the prime reasons for building a new facility -- on the downtown site. During the post election steering committee meetings it became the red herring of fear to justify moving the courthouse. All of a sudden, county officials and others deemed the downtown site unsafe. Where ever did this come from other than a lack of leadership when it counted? In truth and from experience, safety is easily addressed on the downtown site.
In the supposed interest of safety, the new facility is being designed so that the judicial branch of government will no longer be a visible cornerstone of our democratic community, but a sideshow, hidden from view. Judges and attorneys will be shielded from us, isolated from the very community and government they were elected or appointed to serve! Do any of us know how profound an impact this removal of the judiciary from its customary place along side the legislative and executive branches of government will have on our democratic way of life over the coming generations?
Myth: the judicial center will be cheaper to build outside of the downtown. Reality: the substantive difference is the cost of surface parking versus a multilevel parking facility. This, as we have all come to understand, is the driving force behind sprawl versus downtown investment.
However, the site preparations alone for the jail site -- filling a wetland -- will cost at least $300,000 according to the commissioners' early estimates. This money could be better directed in helping the citizens of this community and county avoid sprawl by investing in our community centers.