St. Clair County Courthouse construction starting soon. Here’s how it will impact you
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Starting in March, construction at the St. Clair County Courthouse will create temporary changes for the hundreds of people who visit courtrooms and county offices each day as well as people traveling through downtown Belleville.
Officials say the construction project will expand the entry lobby, improve the security checkpoint there and provide street-level entry on the southwest side of the building, which means it will become accessible to people who can’t climb the existing exterior stairs.
The courthouse will remain open to the public throughout the project, but it will intermittently affect road and building access.
Here’s what to know about the coming construction.
Plan for road, building access changes
At the southwest entrance, the deteriorating exterior steps will be demolished between March and May, according to Scott Manning, the director of construction operations for the company Impact Strategies, which is managing the project. He said renovations will continue at the southwest entrance until spring 2025.
At times, it will cause traffic restrictions on South First and West Washington streets. Signs will alert and redirect drivers.
The work will also require the tunnel between the South First Street public parking garage and courthouse to close for months at a time, Manning said. When that happens, visitors will be directed to walk down West Washington and South Illinois streets from the parking garage to the building’s main entrance across from the fountain on Public Square.
The Public Building Commission voted at its January meeting to purchase two golf carts for about $30,000 for people who need help getting from the parking garage to the main entrance while the tunnel is shut down.
Manning said the tunnel shutdown is most likely going to start in the second half of March. He added that a temporary connector will be installed so that the tunnel isn’t closed for the entire year the project is expected to take to complete.
To help visitors plan their travel downtown and to the courthouse, the county will provide updates on lane restrictions, parking and building access at its website, co.st-clair.il.us.
Will construction affect Belleville festivals?
Belleville Mayor Patty Gregory said she’s not too worried about how the construction would affect the city’s 22 downtown festivals and parades because most of them take place on Main Street.
The largest ones, Belleville’s Chili Cook-off, Art on the Square and Oktoberfest, also use some of Illinois Street.
Officials aren’t planning any site changes for the events at this time, according to Gregory. She thinks the city will be able to use the same street detours it usually does, but it can always adjust the route if needed.
The mayor praised the project for creating a more accessible entrance for older people and people with disabilities in the community.
“I think it’s going to be a great move,” Gregory said.
Why officials say the project is needed
Bill Reichert, the architectural and planning adviser for the Public Building Commission, said federal COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan gave the county an opportunity to catch up on work it had deferred over the years. He said that includes an improved security checkpoint before people can enter the building’s offices or courtrooms, which is part of the work starting in March.
Jim Brede, the county buildings director, said security studies by law enforcement and court agencies have recommended changes at the St. Clair County Courthouse for more than 30 years. The first time was in the late 1980s.
Last year, the county set up metal detectors in the lobby for the first time. For many years before that, they had only been stationed at courtrooms and the county board meeting room.
Reichert said there’s still room for improvement.
“It’s a little difficult because there’s two sides to the building, there’s separated elevators, there’s a stairwell that comes down behind the officers and the security desk that they can’t really watch when they’re watching people come in the building,” Reichert said. “So this is going to solve all those and give us way better security and control.”
The work is part of an estimated $14 million in total construction at the courthouse, which included completed upgrades to prisoner holding cells, freight elevators and new, energy-efficient windows.
More than half of the cost, $9.3 million, is covered by the federal COVID relief program. The remaining $4.7 million will come out of Public Building Commission funds, according to Brede.
Brede said the courthouse is nearly 50 years old and hasn’t had major structural renovations since it was constructed in 1975. The new windows, for example, are now up to code and have resulted in an estimated 20-25% savings on utilities, he said.
After the southwest entrance construction is complete in spring 2025, officials also plan to renovate the main entrance as part of the planned security improvements. They anticipate that work could take until fall 2025.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.