Fredericksburg ARB Calls For Authentic Courthouse
The Fredericksburg Architectural Review Board tabled a vote on the Certificate of Appropriateness for materials used for the proposed courthouse and almost revisited its 4-3 vote made in March to approve the design.
Fredericksburg's Architectural Review Board did not seem happy with the construction materials proposed for the city's new downtown courthouse complex and came close Monday night to revisiting its March split vote to approve the design of the building.
After careful consideration of the code, ARB members unanimously decided to table the vote on a Certificate of Appropriateness for the construction of the new courthouse complex on Princess Anne Street instead of revisiting its March 4-3 vote to approve the design. Members expressed concerns during Monday night's meeting in City Hall chambers about the construction materials, lack of a flagpole for an American flag, the windows, pre-fabricated cupola, the sallyport and any signage that would identify it as a courthouse.
"We Don't Want A Velveeta Building"
None of the speakers during the public hearing was supportive of the materials that are proposed for the complex, and all of them questioned the scale of the building even though it wasn't necessarily on the public hearing agenda.
Former Fredericksburg Mayor Bill Beck, who lives behind the proposed courthouse site, said he doesn't mind the location on Princess Anne Street and he thinks it is the best spot for a new courthouse.
"We all have to be honest and recognize the scale is not appropriate," he said. "The scale is too large."
At nearly 80,000 square feet, the courthouse complex is more than double the next-largest structure downtown, he said. Beck urged the ARB to reconsider its 4-3 vote because City Council will take a new look at the scale of this project when there is the election changeover in July. He questioned why some synthetic construction materials were proposed and the pre-fabricated cupola.
"We don't want a Velveeta building," Beck said. "We want the real thing."
James O. McGhee, a local architect, asked why the design includes so many fake elements and prefabricated materials. The materials and design have nothing to do with Fredericksburg, he said, and added that he is insulted by what has been proposed by the design-build team First Choice. McGhee said he doesn't see any passion in the materials and interior or any special experiences for visitors to this future complex. He turned to the members of the design-build team and asked, "What single element in this building are you passionate about enough to bring your grandchildren back to show them and brag about? As a citizen, I think this building as presented is an insult, and as an architect I am embarrassed."
Paul Scott said he is is in favor of this project, but the size should be reconsidered.
Matt Kelly, who will take office in July and form a new majority that plans to reconsider the scale and design of the courthouse project, said that the ARB will be a part of the decision-making process and their concerns won't be ignored like they were before.
"We are talking about the single-largest project in the city's history here this evening," Kelly said.
Kelly said the city will construct a new courthouse, and it will probably be at the proposed location on Princess Anne Street, but the quality and size of the project are up in the air when the new majority takes office. Kelly asked the ARB to be flexible in its decision-making process and let City Council revisit this project.
"I think I am very comfortable telling you that the council will be reviewing this project," Kelly said. "Where that goes is still up in the air and open for discussion. I made my positions on this pretty clear: I think the scale and massing is too large and I think we are going too far in meeting the court's needs."
Sean Maroney, executive director of Historic Fredericksbrg Foundation Inc., said the public process so far has had undertones of manifest destiny. Criticism that was offered was largely ignored and he thought the process was disturbing.
"It was going to happen no matter what," he said. "We have a real opportunity to consider these things still. It is not a done deal. We do have the power to say 'stop and let's review this.'"
Fake Limestone and No Flagpole?
ARB member Owen Lindauer said that none of the materials for the courthouse complex seemed to share any identity with Fredericksburg. He questioned why the design-build architects want to use fake limestone for the base over local stone.
Andrew Moore, the design-build team architect who answered most of the ARB's questions, first appeared stumped, an apparent admission that they never even considered using local materials to build a courthouse in the historic district.
Moore said brick is very common in Virginia and it could be considered a local product. As for the fake limestone base, he said the team is open to considering other options. But the fake limestone is more durable than real stone, he cautioned.
"I think it is a fair question and I think we can look into that to see if we can find a natural stone alternative," he said.
Lindauer also asked why there isn't a flagpole in the renderings and wondered if the city's new courthouse would even have a flag flying on the property.
Moore said there is very little space available for anything else on the property, so it's possible a flagpole could be inside the main entrance and visible from outside through the glass windows. He said it is also possible that a flag could be on the cupola. Lindauer also said the renderings do not show any signage that it is a courthouse.
"I would agree that is a design feature that we need to have," Moore said.
ARB member Kerri Barile said she looked at the design for the Colonial Heights courthouse that these architects developed and found it nearly identical to the city's complex. But she wanted to know how that design and the products used for construction fit Fredericksburg's unique historic downtown character.
The architect who authored the Colonial Heights design, who later declined to offer his name to a reporter, said the designs are similar, but not identical.
Revisiting The March Vote
The background on why the ARB voted 4-3 in March to support the scale and design of the courthouse project was clarified the following day at a City Council meeting, at which ARB Chairman Jamie Scully read a prepared statement that was critical of the public process. Scully said the only reason members decided to approve the certificate was because of language in the ordinance that states that the applicant, which is the City of Fredericksburg, can appeal the ARB decision to City Council, and the majority of council has already shown its full support of the project. One of the main objectives of the ARB is to determine if a project is compatible with the city's historic district.
On Monday night, ARB member Jon Van Zandt made a motion to open discussion of revisiting that split vote to approve the design. ARB member J. Gordon Brown also wanted to revisit the March vote.
Lindauer thought it seemed dubious to revisit the vote because the only thing that is different than in March is that a new council member will take office in July to form a new majority that apparently plans to revisit the courthouse project's scale and design. Lindauer cautioned that ARB members should stay out of that political process, let the City Council review run its course, and vote only on the matter before them, which was the Certificate of Appropriateness for the materials of the courthouse complex.
"I believe when we voted on the scale and massing that most of us were not happy with that," Brown said. "Our chairman's statement to the council made that clear and we felt like we really didn’t have a choice."
Van Zandt said if the real issue is the scale and massing of the project, then the ARB should address the subject again.
"I just want to make sure we are not missing an opportunity to revisit the scale and massing of this project," he said.
Erik F. Nelson, Fredericksburg's senior planner, read from the code that says the ARB can reconsider its decision and the application if there is substantial change in facts, evidence or conditions related to the application. Lindauer argued that there aren't any substantial changes to the facts or conditions, therefore the ARB members should stick to voting on the certificate before them.
"The reason I am being so conservative here is that this board has a history of getting involved in matters that are not its charge," he said.
Van Zandt said if the ARB wants to send a message to City Council and the architects that the scale and massing of the project is out of character, then members should reconsider the March vote.
Brown said Lindauer's concerns are justified, "However, I also strongly believe that we felt like we did not have an option but to move forward with the scale and massing and I think everyone on the board had an objection to it," Brown said. "Now we find out today ... I may have an option to undo something that I did out of necessity, not out of choice. If that option exists tonight then I would choose to take that option."
But the ARB passed over reconsidering its March vote, and Lindauer then made a motion to table the decision on the Certificate of Appropriateness for the construction materials pending responses from the architects on the concerns members raised during the meeting. That motion passed 6-0.