State-owned Monroe, Supreme Court buildings to be replaced with new ones

The city’s tallest office tower, the James Monroe Building, is being eyed for replacement by the state. (Michael Schwartz photo)

With RFP responses in hand, the state government is moving ahead with plans for a half-billion dollars’ worth of construction for two new buildings — one of which could lead to the sale or demolition of the tallest office tower in the city.

Virginia’s Department of General Services has received funding from the General Assembly to begin planning for the replacement of the 26-story James Monroe Building at 101 N. 14th St., as well as the Supreme Court of Virginia building at 100 N. 9th St.

Joe Damico

DGS Director Joe Damico recently confirmed that the detailed design process for each project has begun after receiving responses to a recent request for proposals.

The replacement for the Monroe Building would be a roughly 13-story, 350,000-square-foot office tower at 703 E. Main St., where a Virginia Employment Commission building currently stands. That plot is available after VEC relocated to Brookfield Place in Henrico.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Virginia’s new home would rise a few blocks east at 900 E. Main St. The Pocahontas Building currently sits there, but Damico said the Supreme Court’s new home would require at least part, and perhaps all, of the Pocahontas Building to be razed. The Virginia Court of Appeals would also be based out of the prospective new building.

At its 2021 Special Session, the General Assembly provided DGS a total of $17.5 million to fund the design processes for the two new structures. Once designs are completed and winning bids are selected, Damico said the DGS will then go back to the GA to request funding to move forward with construction.

DGS estimates that the Monroe Building’s replacement would be a $283 million project and the court project would cost at least $155 million.

Damico, who’s been with DGS since 2002 and was appointed director in 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam, said both the Monroe and Supreme Court of Virginia buildings have issues relating to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, safety and security, as well as general design inefficiencies.

“We’ve got systems in there that were put in there in 1950 that we have a hard time finding repair parts for, if we can even find them,” Damico said of the Supreme Court of Virginia Building.

“Over the last five, six, 10 years, things have shifted with building design with entries into the building, security, X-rays and things like that. This building wasn’t set up for that type of security.”

At 449 feet, the Monroe Building is the tallest building in the city, per high-rise database SkyscraperPage. The 496,000-square-foot tower was built from 1976 to 1981 and Damico said it has similar issues with its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, as well as ADA compliance.

“We had an assessment done to that building, and the cost associated with renovating that building versus building a new one, it was more cost effective to build and design (a new one),” Damico said.

The 40-year-old office tower at 101 N. 14th St. houses a number of state agencies, including the Department of Education. (Mike Platania photos)

He added that constructing a new building would allow them to design it in a way that better suits a post-pandemic office setting.

The new tower would have half the number of stories and about 150,000 fewer square feet than Monroe’s 350,000. It would include 600 parking spaces, compared Monroe’s 624. The smaller footprint is in part due to future remote work done by state employees.

“We believe that what we have proposed for a new office building will accommodate the needs coming out of the Monroe tower,” Damico said. “We believe some percent of the Monroe tenants that are in the building today will move to telework and allow us to reduce the footprint needs of these agencies.”

Multiple state agencies call the Monroe building home, including the Department of the Treasury and Department of Education, and the Department of Veterans Services.

The size and scope of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s proposed future home is a bit more uncertain.

The new building was initially planned to be approximately 213,000 square feet, up slightly from the current court building’s 200,000 square feet. However, some recently-approved changes to the Virginia Court of Appeals are having a ripple effect on the size of the new building.

A bill expanding the Court of Appeals from 11 to 17 judges was passed in early 2021, but by that point DGS’ designs only accommodated 11 judges.

“With those judges come support staff. There’s some additional offices that will now be needed in this new facility at the Pocahontas site,” Damico said. “We were basing our analysis on how (the court) looks today.”

Whereas the initial plans for a 213,000-square-foot building for the state’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals would only affect the Pocahontas Building’s east tower, Damico said they’re now taking a look at the west tower as well.

“Our initial thinking was we’re just going to deal with the east tower and build there, but now that we have to give consideration to these additional staff at the Court of Appeals, we’re going to have our design team look at the (entire) Pocahontas site,” Damico said.

“There’s still some moving parts with that one that we’re not going to know more until we start our design process, and we start that in the next 30 days.”

At the corner of East Franklin and North Ninth streets is the current Supreme Court of Virginia building, which was initially built in 1919 before being added on to in the 1950s.

DGS had initially planned to renovate the Supreme Court of Virginia building, with the Supreme Court using the Pocahontas Building as swing space while the renovations were underway. The General Assembly itself is currently doing just that while it waits for its new home at 923 E. Broad St. to be completed in late summer 2022.

But Damico said renovating the Supreme Court building would have elongated the entire process by about three years.

To pull off a renovation of the Supreme Court building on North Ninth Street, Damico said they’d have to wait for the General Assembly to move into its new building, design the courts’ swing space in the Pocahontas Building to meet their needs, build it, have them move in, then begin a renovation of the Supreme Courts building once they’ve moved out.

“The (renovation) wouldn’t have been completed until about 2029,” Damico said. “To wait another nine years to address these issues was concerning to me, so we started to look at what our options were. We believe now that we could probably have them in (the prospective new building) in spring of 2026.”

With design underway for the new buildings, the fate of the old buildings has not been decided.

While his department won’t be making those decisions — the General Assembly and governor’s office would handle that — Damico said he thinks the Supreme Court of Virginia building would be retained by the state.

“I think that one is a building that has historic significance and I’d say that it should remain in the state’s inventory and control, not only because of the historic significance but also because it’s adjacent to Capitol Square,” he said.

On the other hand, the Monroe Building is likely to have more potential options — including being declared surplus and put up for sale.

Damico said earlier this year DGS included in a briefing to the General Assembly an estimated value of $28 million for the Monroe tower, a valuation made by an outside broker.

He added that the state may also consider demolishing the tower.

“I think we’re so far out from any final decisions on Monroe and whether or not the state would keep it and bring it down,” Damico said.

Damico reiterated that it’s not DGS’ decision on what happens to the Monroe Building or the Supreme Court building. “Those are calls (the General Assembly and governor’s administration) make and we execute what they direct us to do,” he said.

The deadlines for RFPs for the Supreme Court and Monroe projects were June 14 and July 28, respectively. Damico said DGS cannot disclose how many responses they received for each RFP.

The next step in the process is the selection of winning bids for the potential projects, which Damico said DGS hopes to do in the next 30 days.

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Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
1 month ago

It would be more forward-looking if some improved public transport supported new buildings. Having the same amount of parking for a far smaller building shows a disconnect in the thinking of the state, regional transportation planning, the city and the counties. Downtown needs density and great transportation, not smaller buildings and what is effectively an increased parking capacity.

Roger Turner
Roger Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

I am not anti-public transportation but I don’t think it’s shows a “disconnect” when the only public transportation option in the area is the GRTC bus system. Certainly there are a large percentage of people who will work in or visit those buildings that live outside of areas that are covered by GRTC, not to mention it’s not a very time efficient way to travel if you are more than 5 miles away. If I recall the “Pulse” is our high speed transportation that is 7.6 miles long and takes almost 30 minutes to travel and that doesn’t include waiting… Read more »

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
1 month ago
Reply to  Roger Turner

Although you are correct about the inconvenience of the current Pulse system, it’s designed as a first step toward a larger, more well-connected bus system, someday replaced by light rail. If we continue to fill land with structured parking, it’ll encourage more auto traffic as the population grows, and discourage mass transit options. When I moved here in 1996, there were rails still existing in Grove Avenue from the light rail system that was replaced by the auto decades ago. General Motors bought that system and closed it to promote auto sales. Our future lies in alternative transportation options.

Roger Turner
Roger Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

Bruce – I hate to sound anti-public transportation as I actually like the subway systems in many places. However if it wasn’t planned for a long time ago, its so cost prohibitive now. The Tide in Norfolk cost $43 million a mile in 2010, I can only imagine that would be pushing $100M a mile now and a great deal of that was on existing railway right of ways. Those figures do not include yearly maintenance and cost of operations. Trying to insert a mass system into someplace like Richmond would be 10’s of billions of dollars. It would probably… Read more »

Jason James
Jason James
1 month ago

I was going to post exactly the same comment as Garry. Planning a building significantly smaller than the Monroe in part because of increased telework but then including almost as many parking spaces is crazy. The state has already killed whole areas of downtown with its massive parking structures.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jason James
John Signs
John Signs
1 month ago

Taxpayer waste…built in 76 needs to be replaced?? Give me a break.

Tim Kramer
Tim Kramer
1 month ago

I’ve been in and worked in both the Monroe and Pocahontas buildings. I can’t believe the findings either. Neither are spring chickens but the decision is perplexing.

The new building are going to be hyped as being green but one would think that the greenest thing would be to renovate vs. build new and tear down old.

John Signs
John Signs
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Kramer

Agree 100%

SA Chaplin
SA Chaplin
1 month ago

It is wonderful to be reminded that we have a building named after Pocahontas. At age 10 (possibly 11) Pocahontas saved the life of John Smith, the man who can be credited with keeping our early settlers alive. (Of course, Smith needed help: he cajoled and negotiated for aid from various local Indian tribes.)

Holly Ulrich
Holly Ulrich
1 month ago

Whatever replaces the Monroe building could be tied into the current Shockoe Plan Draft. A “bird’s eye” viewing site could be incorporated to over look the African American Burial Ground and Lumpkin’s Jail site, along with connecting the site to the Richmond Slave Trail.

Richard Waiton
Richard Waiton
1 month ago

Very interesting article, as much for what has been omitted as for what it says. For example, there is no mention that the Monroe site was plagued with hydrologic and foundation issues from the start. This is part of the reason why the planned two-tower structure was never completed. It seems odd that a building completed as recently as 1981 and which stood as the tallest building in the Commonwealth until 2007 is now considered so deficient that razing it has become the most cost-effective option. The entrance lobby is quite spacious with seemingly more than enough room to accommodate… Read more »

Marcus Omar Squires
Marcus Omar Squires
1 month ago

Why demolish the Monroe Building? I’ve been inside and it is very nice, the building was to be made into twin towers and the site still has a hefty foundation and platform unused and paid for by the taxpayers for the addition of new office space on the capitol complex? Why is the Department of General Services overlooking this major component? Also most mechanical systems tend to last 50 years, that doesn’t mean demolish the complex, in an age where going green is a priority, demolishing a structure is not the way to go.

Last edited 1 month ago by Marcus Omar Squires
Mark Slater
Mark Slater
1 month ago

How much would it cost for someone to convert the Monroe Building into apartments? We constantly hear about the housing shortage in the city. The view and the location are incredible.

Peter James
Peter James
30 days ago
Reply to  Mark Slater

This would be the best and most preferable solution. Regardless of what one may think of the appearance of the building (and I have always liked it) – it would be a huge asset to downtown as an iconic residential building. It is a horrible waste to tear down this tower. As one poster pointed out, it was the tallest in the Commonwealth until 2007, and fully one to two generations of Richmonders have never known the skyline without this anchoring the easternmost portion of the skyline. It’s part of what makes RVA’s skyline unique and should be sold to… Read more »

Don O’Keefe
Don O’Keefe
1 month ago

The State of Virginia has done a terrible job of managing and designing the land they own in Downtown Richmond. They own large numbers of parking lots near these existing buildings. They should redevelop these and offload, repurpose, or renovate the existing buildings. At the general assembly building, they destroyed some the best buildings in downtown to buildings new building, even though they owned a half block parking lot across the street. This mistake shouldn’t be repeated, and neither should the empty surface lots, dead garages, and street closures that have prevailed in the past.

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen
1 month ago

Interesting, when getting on the highway the other morning I said to myself that building needs to be imploded. It’s old, outdated and ugly as sin. God only knows what the Architect was thinking. Whatever is built, it needs to be architecturally pleasing, functional and beautify Richmond’s visual appearance to all those within our community and when driving by.

Steve Fox
Steve Fox
30 days ago
Reply to  Steven Cohen

Exactly, It is an eyesore on the skyline of Richmond. Finally Richmond does something right.It seems you hurt feeling on here lol.

Matt Merica
Matt Merica
28 days ago
Reply to  Steven Cohen

I am with you – the building looks like a prison to me. Maybe if they sand blasted it or something to lighten the color it would help.

Last edited 28 days ago by Matt Merica
Denis Etonach
Denis Etonach
1 month ago

One factor that could have influenced the ample parking: the National Slavery Museum will be across the street, and without much parking. This deck could be ideal for that project.

Arnold H Hager
Arnold H Hager
29 days ago

Why not leave the buildings there? The old Federal Reserve Building is very attractive to me. The Monroe Towers can be returned to the people that paid for it, and used for living space. Build the new stuff on Navy Hill, it needs the help. Save Main St. sites for private/commercial development. I no longer live in Richmond. I was born there, lived, worked and played there for 46 years. I remember when the Monroe Bldg. was built; it’s NOT THAT OLD. lol.

Arnold H Hager
Arnold H Hager
29 days ago
Reply to  Arnold H Hager

That old Federal Reserve Building(FRB) is Historical and I would like to see it preserved. When the Federal Reserve was formed back round 1913, having one of its branches here helped Richmond become the city it is today. Richmond used to be the home headquarters for several large banks, before they moved to Charlotte, N.C. The FRB was instrumental to Richmond’s growth. That’s what I see when looking at this most impressive building, fortress-like. The city owes this awesome symbol of commerce and capitalism respect.

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
28 days ago

If only half the space is needed by the state, move everyone to one half and renovate the other. then move the state employees into the new space. That would leave 150,000 s.f. of space for some other use, probably office. I’m not sure there would be enough parking for residential.

Save money on state office reno, save money on new purchase and still gain income (after reno) from leasing the vacant half.