Crime & Courts

Cramped courthouse drives Richland leaders to explore building a new one

The Richland County Judicial Center on Main Street in Columbia.
The Richland County Judicial Center on Main Street in Columbia.

The Richland County Judicial Center already has outlived its expected lifespan by a year, and county leaders now want to explore the costly possibility of building a new courthouse in a new location.

The 36-year-old judicial center on Main Street is “busting at the seams,” said County Councilman and lawyer Seth Rose.

“This has to be done,” Rose said. “This is the people’s building. ... It’s no longer being functional, and that’s going to continue to become a bigger problem.”

Lawyers from both the solicitor’s and public defender’s offices are doubled up in offices and lack private meeting spaces.

Elevators break down on a regular basis.

Courtrooms – there are four large and several smaller ones – are not equipped with up-to-date technology.

And many courthouse professionals, including those who prosecute or work with people accused of dangerous crimes, have to walk unprotected between their offices and cars because of the building’s lack of sufficient protected parking.

“It’s a safety issue that I’ve been screaming about for years,” 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson said.

Johnson’s office has about 120 people working in the courthouse, split between two floors. They have only one restroom for men and one for women and no conference rooms for meeting with victims.

“Think about having to have a conversation with a victim in a rape case,” Johnson said. “Where do you have that conversation? With some other guy on the phone in there?”

The list of the courthouse’s challenges and limitations goes on, from security issues to inefficient heating and cooling.

It was 1972 when Richland County voters narrowly approved a referendum to finance a portion of the eventual $11.7 million courthouse, which wouldn’t open until eight years later at the corner of Main and Blanding streets in downtown Columbia. At the time, building designers and local leaders expected the facility would be able to serve the county’s needs through 2015, according to articles published in The State newspaper.

“We got our money’s worth out of it,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.

More than 50 of Lott’s deputies are in charge of courthouse security, which can be “really a nightmare” considering the building’s lack of buffer space next to city streets and parking areas, he said.

The building has had a number of security upgrades in recent years, but “we’re putting Band-aids on a large wound that needs to be healed,” Lott said.

Richland County and Columbia leaders talked about the possibility of a new courthouse a few years ago. At the time, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city could perhaps buy the existing courthouse and convert it into offices for city workers.

But the idea went nowhere because of concerns about cost, some County Council members said.

Cost and location are two of the main challenges likely to face any plans for a new judicial center.

“Most believe it should be somewhere downtown,” Councilman Paul Livingston said. “If you wait much longer, you probably won’t be able to find too much (downtown land) left.”

And the price tag of a new judicial center certainly will dwarf the amount the county spent four decades ago to build the current facility.

“That, at some point, is either going to stop us dead in our tracks or move us forward,” Councilman Greg Pearce said. “If it were $100 million, I don’t know how we’d pay for it.” But, he said, “Obviously, counties around the state are replacing their courthouses, and they’re coming up with ways to pay for it.”

Other counties have been building new courthouses over the past several years. Lexington County, for instance, opened a $16 million judicial center in 2004. Florence County is in the midst of constructing a new $32 million judicial center to replace its 44-year-old facility.

Stevens & Wilkinson architecture and engineering firm in Columbia is responsible for the design of a number of modern judicial buildings throughout the state, including Florence, Sumter and Lancaster counties’ as well as the lauded Matthew J. Perry U.S. Courthouse in Columbia.

“You might build a courthouse every 50 to 70 years, so it’s not something you take lightly,” said Ashby Gressette, director of architecture for Stevens & Wilkinson. In addition to meeting a county’s current and projected needs, as well as meeting high security standards, “it should be a great-looking building, something a community would be proud of,” Gressette said.

If the planning process were to start in earnest right now, the county likely still wouldn’t see a new courthouse open its doors before 2021, Gressette said.

But, county leaders and judicial stakeholders say, now’s the time to get the ball rolling.

“I don’t know that there’s ever a good time to try to do this,” Johnson said. “But the courthouse isn’t getting any bigger.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.