County Edging Closer to Courthouse Demolition

Will County Court House in Joliet Illinois 805033
Will County Court House in Joliet Illinois 805033

Ogalla

Bertino-Tarrant

By Nick Reiher

Not very often have Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant and County Board Chair Judy Ogalla found themselves on common ground. But they are together on proceeding with demolition of the former courthouse until the county is ready to put the land to good use.

Good public use. Like the possibility of a new county building that would allow all offices to be under one roof. The Land Use Department, Public Defender and Regional Schools Office are in rented spaces.

At an April 4 meeting of the board’s Capital Improvements Committee, both reiterated the need to demolish the 54-year-old structure, vacant shortly after the new 10-story, $200-plus million courthouse opened in October 2020 just a few steps to the west in Downtown Joliet.

To make a point on delays to demolition this year, Ogalla had asked Bertino-Tarrant’s office to itemize how much the county is spending to keep the former courthouse vacant.

At the April 4 meeting, Dave Tkac, Bertino-Tarrant’s Director of Facilities and Capital Programming, said, all told, the county is spending about $500,000 to keep on minimal heat and electricity for security lighting, as well as the possibility of having to spend upwards of $100,000 a year for its own insurance if the county keeps it open much longer.

Tkac has said if all goes well, the bid for demolition, estimated at $1.3 million, could be awarded this summer, with work beginning in August and completion by the end of the year. The land then would be graded and possibly used for a public space until the county develops a plan for a new building.

Tkac added ComEd officials have said it would no longer be a problem to remove the substation in the basement of the former courthouse and reroute power remotely to a section of Downtown Joliet.
Had COVID not intervened, it’s likely the 54-year-old structure in Downtown Joliet would have been demolished already, following a 2019 resolution by the board to do so.

The delay allowed a group of local preservationists to push for saving the building, noting it is an example of the “Brutalist” period of design popularized during the 1950s and ‘60s.

The style often uses exposed, unpainted concrete or brick, angular geometric shapes and predominantly monochrome color, as well as steel, timber and glass.

Many in the community call it ugly.

Nine of the 22 County Board members are new, elected in November. Despite assurances by Ogalla and Tkac that the board discussed the issue of demolition thoroughly before that resolution passed, some of the newcomers and incumbents want to revisit potential public private development of the formers courthouse.

A group, led in part by Joliet attorney Hudson Hollister, has tried to find every which way to save the building and use it for public-private development, despite being repeatedly told doing so would be improbable at best, since the land on which the old courthouse sits is in a trust older than the county itself.

Those with questions note the county has no firm plans to develop the site as yet. And demolition and building a new government building would be much more costly than repurposing the former courthouse.

Ogalla echoed multiple opinions from the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office that it would take legislation to take the land out of public trust so it could be used for private or public-private development.

If that were to pass – with the Legislature not likely to take up the issue until at least next year — trust laws throughout the state would be affected; not just the former Will County Courthouse land, said Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Tatroe.

Also, the Circuit Court then would need to approve the transfer of the land, with no guarantees any of that would happen following months or years of delay.

Bertino-Tarrant shared a letter to County Board members before the April 4 meeting stressing that while they can discuss any plans for the former courthouse, she would not act on any that run opposite to current law.

She also has repeatedly said she would follow the County Board’s current resolution for demolition, adding the county needs a new office building since they are out of room at the former Sears Building at 302 N. Chicago St., Joliet.

Ogalla suggested he begin working on another county capital plan that would include options for the former courthouse property. She and Tkac said delaying demolition for to consider plans that may never be allowed is wasting taxpayer dollars.

During public comment on April 4, Hollister, who has presented a list of private developers for the former courthouse, continued to try to make his case:

“This building (the former courthouse) is not a liability; it is an opportunity.”

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