City Commission OKs moving forward with Missouri Room renovation for courtrooms

City Commissioners said during their July 18 work session that they want staff to move forward with plans to convert the Missouri Room on the upper level of the Civic Center into space for the Municipal Court.

The court is currently located in the Civic Center basement and is running out of space for current operations and doesn’t have space for the second judge that’s slated to start in January.

The court relocation was identified by commissioners in April 2022 as a top tier project for federal COVID relief funding.

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The project is eligible for the funds since the COVID closures created a significant backlog for the Municipal Court, according to Tom Hazen, city grants manager.

City officials set aside $3.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for the court relocation project and the current estimate for the Missouri Room renovation is $3.2. million.

The city-county Historic Preservation Advisory Commission has opposed using the Missouri Room, which they said is a historical community space.

Several members asked if the city had conducted a historic preservation review, which is required in many cases when using federal funds.

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The city has already started multiple improvement projects using ARPA funds in the Civic Center, which is a historic building, and HPAC did not publicly raise concerns about a historic preservation review.

Hazen said the ARPA funds are considered local and not federal for historic preservation purposes, so there is no historic preservation review required.

Since commissioners said they wanted to move forward with the project, staff said they intent to bring a contract to commissioners during an August meeting.

Tony Houtz, an architect with Cushing Terrell, reviewed remodel designs with commissioners during their July 18 work session.

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He had presented initial designs during an April work session and told commissioners this week that he had updated the designs based on feedback.

missouri room remodel July 2023 design

Houtz said the design now has two courtrooms of the same size, minimized vertical walls going to the ceiling to minimize the impact to the existing room, jury rooms and judge office moved to the hallway, uses more existing walls and the breakroom is tucked into an area already used for a similar purpose.

The design includes concealing HVAC so there’s no visible duct work or dropped ceilings and the ability to separate the space from the Gibson Room and other areas of the building if needed with secure doors, Houtz said.

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The design also creates a hallway area that reveals a space that used to be the organ room for the Mansfield Theater that’s currently hidden behind a door and a screen that would allow a view into the theater, Houtz said.

That area could be used as an exhibit of the building and communities history and “create a sense for what it means for justice in our community,” with solemnity, he said. It could also highlight architecture of the building by recreating the frieze from the outside of the building, he said.

missouri room remodel july 2023 rendering

Houtz also shared a conceptual design on how to repurpose the basement space for public use once the court relocates to the Missouri Room.

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Staff is also looking at options to relocate the IT training room that is currently located off the Missouri Room and would be displaced in the renovation for court.

Houtz said they have considered sound impacts and HVAC capabilities for the modified space.

Houtz said that the new design minimizes the impact to the structure of the room, creating the possibility that the space could be restored to its current state, with some work and cost, if that was deemed necessary in the future.

If the city moves on contracts for the remodel in August, Houtz said full buildout of the room would likely be completed by early 2025.

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Commissioner Susan Wolff said that she supports historic preservation but that the commission has “to look to the future of the community and what our needs are.”

City Manager Greg Doyon reiterated during the July 18 work session the work staff has done over the years to make more office space and the considerations for other spaces inside and outside of the Civic Center.

Staff has considered the city-owned building currently occupied by the Children’s Museum.

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Doyon had recommended taking that building for city needs five years ago, but staff discovered the museum’s lease had an automatic five-year renewal provision that expires in November.

“I knew that we needed the building back then but also knew that it would be a fairly extensive renovation” to make it usable for city purposes, Doyon said.

The museum is currently looking for a new space and Doyon said he’ll recommend a year to year lease for the building until they secure a new location.

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Commissioner Rick Tryon said, “I just don’t see the Children’s Museum being a viable option.”

Doyon said over the years, no elected officials have had the appetite to terminate the museum’s lease to use that building and he believes the cost to renovate the space will be high.

Commissioner Joe McKenney said it’s “an emotional decision for a lot of people.”

The room has historic value but that when it was built, there probably weren’t many options for public meeting space, a landscape that has changed in recent years.

Since the Civic Center is owned by the taxpayers, commissioners have to put it to its best use, which McKenney said is courtrooms.

“The Civic Center is not a museum,” McKenney said and thanked Houtz for preserving many of the historical aspects of the Missouri Room.