As gleaming new courthouse rises, JoCo wants to know what to do with the old space

Renderings: New Johnson County Courthouse

Johnson County Government presented schematic design renderings of its new county courthouse to the county commissioners.
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Johnson County Government presented schematic design renderings of its new county courthouse to the county commissioners.

As Johnson County celebrates a construction milestone by placing the final steel beam on top of its new courthouse, officials are preparing to answer the county’s next lingering question: What to do with the old space?

The new $193 million, seven-story facility is expected to open to the public in January 2021.

It will replace the county’s current, deteriorating courthouse, which will be demolished soon after the new one opens. Starting next month, residents can comment on what they’d like to see done with that lot on Kansas Avenue in Olathe, said Brad Reinhardt, director of facilities management.

Throughout the fall, the county and city will engage residents, the business community and other stakeholders.

“People envision this spurring development around here and filling buildings that aren’t currently occupied,” said District Court Judge David Hauber.

Directly north of the existing courthouse, at Kansas Avenue and Santa Fe Street, crews are almost done with construction on the exterior of the new building, Reinhardt said. Construction should be complete next August, and court staff will move in over the fall and winter.

joco CourtHouse.jpg
A rendering of the new Johnson County Courthouse. File photo

By building a new courthouse, the county aims to solve several problems, such as overcrowded and outdated courtrooms, leaking windows, flooded rooms and a lack of private meeting spaces.

Hauber and other district court judges, Erica Schoenig and Charles Droege, pointed to several problems that have persisted over the past decades. Offices and a courtroom were placed where the county jail once sat, which Droege remembered as smelling like “smoke, bacon and eggs.” Jury rooms have featured bug zappers since a population of sewer flies plagued the courthouse. The building is not accommodating for people with disabilities.

And one of the biggest issues has been security. Reinhardt said inmates, defendants, jurors, staff and the public often cross paths throughout the courthouse.

The new courthouse is being built to improve security and separate inmates from the public, architect Jeff Lane said. Work has already been completed to expand the tunnel used to securely transport inmates from the jail to their court appearances.

“The public will be screened when they come into the lobby, and then be guided to the departments they need to go to,” he said. “Those individuals coming from the jail will have their own circulation path that is secure from the staff and the public. Staff will also have its own path. And the layout will allow jurors to go to the courtroom and to deliberation rooms without having to cross those in custody or the public.”

Because the existing courthouse has been described as “confusing” and “disorienting,” Lane said the new building will feature electronic display boards and clear signs. The first two floors will include the busiest courts, such as traffic court, as well as the clerk’s office, a help center and a large jury assembly area. Each floor will be dedicated to a specific court, including civil, family and criminal courts.

The old Johnson County Courthouse opened in Olathe in 1952. Shane Keyser The Kansas City Star

Officials hope the new courthouse will fit the county’s needs for the next 75 years. The current courthouse, which opened in 1952, was built when the court system had three judges, and when the county’s population was around 63,000, according to county documents. Today, the facility serves more than 400,000 people each year.

The facility will feature 28 courtrooms, which could be increased as the population grows.

Voters in November 2016 approved a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase to help fund the new 350,000-square-foot courthouse, plus a medical examiner’s office.

The exterior of the new courthouse should be completed by November, Reinhardt said, with interior work continuing after that.

A couple of months after the new courthouse opens, crews should demolish the existing courthouse. By summer 2021, work could begin to transform that lot into something new — depending on what the county, city and public decide.

“We have ample opportunity to work together and determine what is the best use for that spot, which is included in our downtown revitalization plan,” said Tim Danneberg, a spokesman with the city of Olathe. “We’ve made major investments in the area. The downtown is a huge priority for us.”

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.