Dorrian Commons and the adjacent James A. Karnes Building Downtown will be replaced by a long-awaited replacement for the Franklin County Municipal Courthouse, placing it on the opposite corner of the street from the 8-year-old Common Pleas Courthouse.
A new Franklin County Municipal Courthouse would be constructed Downtown on the site of Dorrian Commons, a county-owned park on the southeast corner of South High and Mound streets, under a plan being negotiated by county and city officials.
The site also would include the land occupied by the James A. Karnes Building, immediately south of the park, meaning the new courthouse property would stretch along South High from Mound to Fulton streets.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our politics newsletter
In recognition of the loss of the park and the building, the former Hall of Justice on South High Street would be renamed in honor of Michael J. Dorrian, the late county commissioner. The county corrections center under construction on the city's West Side would be named in honor of Karnes, who was the longest-serving sheriff in county history when he died in 2011.
The plans were confirmed for The Dispatch by county Commissioner John O'Grady and Columbus Finance Director Joe Lombardi.
“The city and county are still negotiating and nothing is finalized, but this is everyone's intention,” O'Grady said.
Negotiations are focused primarily on how much the city would pay for the site. With the creation of a design for the building to follow, the most-optimistic goal for groundbreaking is 2022, Lombardi said.
“The judges, the clerk's office and the city attorney's office will have input in the design” of the courthouse, he said.
Whether the Karnes building, built in 1950 as a courthouse annex, would be demolished or repurposed as part of the project is undecided, Lombardi said.
The current Municipal Court building, at the northwest corner of South High and Fulton streets, would be renovated and used as future office space for the county, probably to include sheriff's office operations now housed in the Karnes building, O'Grady said.
The 18-story Municipal Courthouse was dedicated in 1979, with the county financing construction and renting the building to the city.
The new Municipal Courthouse would sit on the corner opposite from the Franklin County Common Pleas Courthouse, which opened in 2011, and likely would be linked to the courthouse complex by a tunnel beneath South High Street, O'Grady said.
In May 2019, Columbus voters approved a bond package allowing the city to take on as much as $1 billion in debt for various projects, including an estimated $130 million for a Municipal Courthouse.
The city's preferred site at the time was a piece of vacant, county-owned land at the southwest corner of South High and West Main streets, immediately north of the Common Pleas building.
But O'Grady said county officials never saw that location as appropriate.
“This is the proper location,” he said of Dorrian Commons. “It aligns all of the court operations on the same street corner.”
Dorrian Commons, a sunken plaza with a pyramid-shaped fountain near the center and a stand of trees on its northern edge, was dedicated in 1976 on the site of the old county courthouse, which stood there from 1887 to 1974. The park was named for Dorrian after his death in 1992.
In 2003, county officials selected Dorrian Commons as the site for a new Common Pleas building. But less than a year later, the county decided instead to purchase a cluster of parking lots at South High and West Mound streets for the building. Construction began in 2008.
There were some public objections at the time to disturbing the park, which held an 11-foot Henry Moore sculpture. The county moved the sculpture across South High Street in 2014 to a plaza in front of a new entrance pavilion for the court complex.
O'Grady doesn't anticipate complaints about eliminating the park, which he said has become a little-used eyesore.
“When Dorrian Commons was dedicated, it was a great tribute to a great man,” O'Grady said. “Over the years, it has become less so. Putting his name on a building that recently underwent a $65 million renovation is a much more fitting tribute.”
The county took the fountain out of operation due to mechanical problems in August 2018, and it closed off the park with chain-link fence in December 2018 while contemplating its future.
The current Municipal Courthouse, the busiest courthouse in Ohio, is well-worn after more than 40 years and hosting an estimated 1 million visitors a year.
Since at least 2012, the city had been planning a complete renovation of the building for an estimated $90 million. More than $12 million has been spent since then on projects that included installing new elevators.
The plans changed in 2018, when Municipal Court judges, the city attorney's office and city administrators agreed that a new building made more sense, even at a higher cost.