Tulsa County officials have for years been kicking around the idea of either building a new courthouse or buying a structure to house its court services.
That conversation took on a new sense of urgency Tuesday when county leaders learned that it would cost an estimated $55.4 million to $73.2 million to make basic repairs to the nearly 70-year-old building at 500 S. Denver Ave.
The estimates do not include soft costs such as architecture fees and material testing, which could increase the bill by 20%, and other associated expenses.
“I have been fairly outspoken,” District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said during a special meeting of the Board of County Commissioners. “I think we just need to go do a completely new courthouse.”
Kunzweiler said the county should explore partnering with other local government entities and nonprofits to create a facility where the public has access to a variety of court-related services.
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“We are going to be doing evictions, and that is going to impact a certain population. We are going to do mental health, that is going to impact a certain population. We are smart enough to design something that will last at least 50 years and better serve our community,” Kunzweiler said. “So my pitch is: Think long; think big; and try to figure out how to incorporate all your partners.”
The courthouse was built in 1955. The adjoining administration building was constructed in 1974.
Jason Cotton, president and CEO of ADG Blatt, which did the courthouse assessment in collaboration with multiple other firms, told commissioners that the focus of the analysis was on the things that “absolutely have to be taken care of.”
Those include repairing or replacing the brick, marble and limestone on the facade of the building to ensure that moisture does not continue to seep into the building; replacing old mechanical equipment such as air handling units and water pumps; upgrading or replacing plumbing; and bringing the building up to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance where possible.
The building assessment also identified multiple safety concerns. The atrium space created by the three-story escalator, for example, does not have a sprinkler system as required.
The nine-story courthouse has no outdoor fire escape. The only points of access out of the building are interior stairs that open to the first floor and elevators that county officials describe as obsolete, slow and unreliable.
“Somebody pulled the fire alarm,” Kunzweiler said. “I had three employees who literally couldn’t go down the stairs, and the only option was elevators, and I had to give them permission to do something that we are told not to be able to do.”
The ADG Blatt assessment calls for upgrading the existing elevators and adding another one.
It will ultimately be up to the county commissioners to determine how the county moves forward.
County Commissioners Kelly Dunkerley and Stan Sallee said they believe it makes sense for the county to explore options for a new facility while also taking the steps necessary to ensure that the existing courthouse operates up to the standards the public expects.
“It is worth a discussion with some of our community partners to kind of see what is the best path forward. Is it repair, or is it some version of replacement?” Dunkerley said. “That is a really big decision.”
Commissioner Karen Keith, who was not at the meeting but was briefed on the presentation, said she fully supports finding a new site for the courthouse.
“I think we absolutely have to look at a new facility,” Keith said. “The users … are all saying this building really doesn’t work anymore. So I want us to do the minimal amount to keep it open, to make it safe, and no more, and work for a bigger solution.”
Keith said she believes the courthouse property could potentially find a higher and better use as part of the city’s Arena District Master Plan. The document envisions creating a 24/7 entertainment district near the BOK Center that would include a large convention hotel.
Moving the courthouse to a new location could provide another benefit to the city, Keith said.
“I have had a conversation with the mayor and actually a couple of city councilors about the potential of combining our courts,” she said
One challenge facing the county as it considers its options is money.
The county has allocated nearly $27 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding that potentially could be used for the project. Other possible sources of funding include the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Tuesday’s discussion did not touch on what it would cost to build a new courthouse or purchase a building to house court services.