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Monday, August 15, 2022

State-owned Monroe, Supreme Court buildings to be replaced with new ones

The city’s tallest office tower, the James Monroe Building, is being eyed for replacement by the state. (Michael Schwartz photo)

With RFP responses in hand, the state government is moving ahead with plans for a half-billion dollars’ worth of construction for two new buildings — one of which could lead to the sale or demolition of the tallest office tower in the city.

Virginia’s Department of General Services has received funding from the General Assembly to begin planning for the replacement of the 26-story James Monroe Building at 101 N. 14th St., as well as the Supreme Court of Virginia building at 100 N. 9th St.

Joe Damico

DGS Director Joe Damico recently confirmed that the detailed design process for each project has begun after receiving responses to a recent request for proposals.

The replacement for the Monroe Building would be a roughly 13-story, 350,000-square-foot office tower at 703 E. Main St., where a Virginia Employment Commission building currently stands. That plot is available after VEC relocated to Brookfield Place in Henrico.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Virginia’s new home would rise a few blocks east at 900 E. Main St. The Pocahontas Building currently sits there, but Damico said the Supreme Court’s new home would require at least part, and perhaps all, of the Pocahontas Building to be razed. The Virginia Court of Appeals would also be based out of the prospective new building.

At its 2021 Special Session, the General Assembly provided DGS a total of $17.5 million to fund the design processes for the two new structures. Once designs are completed and winning bids are selected, Damico said the DGS will then go back to the GA to request funding to move forward with construction.

DGS estimates that the Monroe Building’s replacement would be a $283 million project and the court project would cost at least $155 million.

Damico, who’s been with DGS since 2002 and was appointed director in 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam, said both the Monroe and Supreme Court of Virginia buildings have issues relating to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, safety and security, as well as general design inefficiencies.

“We’ve got systems in there that were put in there in 1950 that we have a hard time finding repair parts for, if we can even find them,” Damico said of the Supreme Court of Virginia Building.

“Over the last five, six, 10 years, things have shifted with building design with entries into the building, security, X-rays and things like that. This building wasn’t set up for that type of security.”

At 449 feet, the Monroe Building is the tallest building in the city, per high-rise database SkyscraperPage. The 496,000-square-foot tower was built from 1976 to 1981 and Damico said it has similar issues with its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, as well as ADA compliance.

“We had an assessment done to that building, and the cost associated with renovating that building versus building a new one, it was more cost effective to build and design (a new one),” Damico said.

The 40-year-old office tower at 101 N. 14th St. houses a number of state agencies, including the Department of Education. (Mike Platania photos)

He added that constructing a new building would allow them to design it in a way that better suits a post-pandemic office setting.

The new tower would have half the number of stories and about 150,000 fewer square feet than Monroe’s 350,000. It would include 600 parking spaces, compared Monroe’s 624. The smaller footprint is in part due to future remote work done by state employees.

“We believe that what we have proposed for a new office building will accommodate the needs coming out of the Monroe tower,” Damico said. “We believe some percent of the Monroe tenants that are in the building today will move to telework and allow us to reduce the footprint needs of these agencies.”

Multiple state agencies call the Monroe building home, including the Department of the Treasury and Department of Education, and the Department of Veterans Services.

The size and scope of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s proposed future home is a bit more uncertain.

The new building was initially planned to be approximately 213,000 square feet, up slightly from the current court building’s 200,000 square feet. However, some recently-approved changes to the Virginia Court of Appeals are having a ripple effect on the size of the new building.

A bill expanding the Court of Appeals from 11 to 17 judges was passed in early 2021, but by that point DGS’ designs only accommodated 11 judges.

“With those judges come support staff. There’s some additional offices that will now be needed in this new facility at the Pocahontas site,” Damico said. “We were basing our analysis on how (the court) looks today.”

Whereas the initial plans for a 213,000-square-foot building for the state’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals would only affect the Pocahontas Building’s east tower, Damico said they’re now taking a look at the west tower as well.

“Our initial thinking was we’re just going to deal with the east tower and build there, but now that we have to give consideration to these additional staff at the Court of Appeals, we’re going to have our design team look at the (entire) Pocahontas site,” Damico said.

“There’s still some moving parts with that one that we’re not going to know more until we start our design process, and we start that in the next 30 days.”

At the corner of East Franklin and North Ninth streets is the current Supreme Court of Virginia building, which was initially built in 1919 before being added on to in the 1950s.

DGS had initially planned to renovate the Supreme Court of Virginia building, with the Supreme Court using the Pocahontas Building as swing space while the renovations were underway. The General Assembly itself is currently doing just that while it waits for its new home at 923 E. Broad St. to be completed in late summer 2022.

But Damico said renovating the Supreme Court building would have elongated the entire process by about three years.

To pull off a renovation of the Supreme Court building on North Ninth Street, Damico said they’d have to wait for the General Assembly to move into its new building, design the courts’ swing space in the Pocahontas Building to meet their needs, build it, have them move in, then begin a renovation of the Supreme Courts building once they’ve moved out.

“The (renovation) wouldn’t have been completed until about 2029,” Damico said. “To wait another nine years to address these issues was concerning to me, so we started to look at what our options were. We believe now that we could probably have them in (the prospective new building) in spring of 2026.”

With design underway for the new buildings, the fate of the old buildings has not been decided.

While his department won’t be making those decisions — the General Assembly and governor’s office would handle that — Damico said he thinks the Supreme Court of Virginia building would be retained by the state.

“I think that one is a building that has historic significance and I’d say that it should remain in the state’s inventory and control, not only because of the historic significance but also because it’s adjacent to Capitol Square,” he said.

On the other hand, the Monroe Building is likely to have more potential options — including being declared surplus and put up for sale.

Damico said earlier this year DGS included in a briefing to the General Assembly an estimated value of $28 million for the Monroe tower, a valuation made by an outside broker.

He added that the state may also consider demolishing the tower.

“I think we’re so far out from any final decisions on Monroe and whether or not the state would keep it and bring it down,” Damico said.

Damico reiterated that it’s not DGS’ decision on what happens to the Monroe Building or the Supreme Court building. “Those are calls (the General Assembly and governor’s administration) make and we execute what they direct us to do,” he said.

The deadlines for RFPs for the Supreme Court and Monroe projects were June 14 and July 28, respectively. Damico said DGS cannot disclose how many responses they received for each RFP.

The next step in the process is the selection of winning bids for the potential projects, which Damico said DGS hopes to do in the next 30 days.

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