Many ideas, no consensus on future of old Will County courthouse site

County officials are legally limited how they decide to use the site where the old courthouse has stood since 1969

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Joliet — The hulking block of a concrete building in downtown Joliet, also known as the old Will County courthouse, has sat vacant for nearly two full years.

No more circus trials. No more perp walks. No more traffic court. Just whatever’s left inside and some ComEd equipment in the building’s lower level.

The intent, in 2019 when the Will County Board passed a resolution supposedly sealing its fate, was to make way for a younger, sexier successor across the street.

Now, two years of indecision and a pandemic later, officials still don’t know how much demolition will cost, let alone whether that’s still the course of action they want to take. So it sits. Vacant.

“We got to knock that building down,” Mike Fricilone, the County Board’s Republican leader from Homer Glen, said during a recent meeting. “You can’t renovate it into anything. There’s too many impediments.”

Jackie Traynere, however, countered that she was still “not totally in favor” of demolition and called on her colleagues to solicit ideas from outside entities that may be interested in redevelopment projects at the site.

“I’m not in favor of just tearing things down,” the Democratic board member from Bolingbrook said.

Progress toward the eventual demolition inches ahead incrementally, as officials and residents debate what the future of the site should be.

The more old courthouse has sat vacant since a new, modern courthouse opened next door. The former courthouse has even attracted vandalism, although it is occasionally used by law enforcement for drills.

On one recent Tuesday, members of the Chicago Police Department conducted a “non-destructive” drill inside the building, according to a spokesman for the Will County Executive’s Office.

On the same day, members of the Will County Board Capital Improvements Committee discussed the future of the site. It was evident there is no consensus on what should come after the existing structure is demolished.

will county courthouse, government

Despite some opposition to tearing down the courthouse, county officials have been pushing for faster progress on demolition because they don’t see rehabilitation as a feasible option.

The law stands in the way. The Will County State’s Attorney issued an opinion which said a 1961 court order determined the old courthouse property and adjacent parking lot is held in a public trust by the county. Therefore, the county cannot sell or lease it to a private entity, and the property needs to be used to serve the public.

Herbert Brooks Jr., D-Joliet, who chairs the Capital Improvements Committee, said it was “too early to tell” what direction the county would go with the old courthouse property.

“Right now, I don’t have an answer,” he said. “I don’t want to get ahead of the committee.”

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Meanwhile, a local group advocating for the preservation of the old courthouse released a new legal opinion this month from the Chicago-based law firm Neal and Leroy that argued the existing structure could be restored to feature private businesses.

Hudson Hollister, a member of the Courthouse Preservation Partnership, detailed the opinion before the county board committee. He said with the legal opinion’s assertion that public-private redevelopment is “legally permissible,” the county could consider options “that involve private investment.”

Hollister also pointed to a nonprofit organization’s recent designation of the old courthouse as among the “most endangered historic places in Illinois,” as reason to preserve the building.

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Still, the efforts from the preservation group have not garnered much interest from county officials.

Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant said in a statement “it is unfortunate that outside entities are seeking to justify giving away public land to private developers.”

But while the property’s future remains undecided, county officials still have to get updated cost estimates for abating asbestos in the building and for the demolition itself.

Officials have also been calling for Commonwealth Edison to remove electrical substation equipment from the lower level of the courthouse, which needs to be done before demolition can take place. The equipment provides power to multiple businesses in downtown Joliet.

will county courthouse, government

Dave Tkac, the county’s director of facilities and capital programming, told committee members that bid documents for just the abatement of asbestos will be available later this month. After the county receives the bids, Tkac said, he hopes to proceed with that portion of the project “as soon as we can get going.”

Tkac also said the county must give ComEd a “drop dead date” for removing its equipment so that demolition can take place, but the county executive’s office said no specific timetable has been set.

Bertino-Tarrant said in a statement her office is continuing to “follow the direction of the County Board to pursue demolition of the old courthouse,” a reference to the 2019 resolution the board passed in support of demolition.