Downtown may get a bit more crowded

NASHUA – If you think parking downtown is tough now, wait until next year.

The Hillsborough County Superior Court’s northern district courthouse in Manchester is expected to close for renovations in December 2009, and officials plan to move operations into the southern district courthouse in Nashua.

The move depends on the state legislature’s approval of the $17 million tab to renovate the Manchester courthouse, however. Whether it will pass, given the current economic climate, is anyone’s guess, Hillsborough County Attorney Marguerite Wageling said.

However, lawmakers already approved $2.5 million to move Manchester’s family division into the city’s district court, and $1.3 million for architectural design and planning for the Manchester court’s renovation.

The Manchester courthouse can’t remain open during renovations in part because the building is full of asbestos insulation, which creates a health hazard when it’s removed or otherwise disturbed.

A team of court officials has been charged with planning the move and met for the first time Sept. 25, court officials said last month. The group includes judges and administrative staff from both courts.

In some ways, the move will be a return to earlier days. Once upon a time, there was but one Hillsborough County Superior Court, on Temple Street in Nashua. Later, the county court moved to the current courthouse on Chestnut Street in Manchester.

When the Nashua courthouse on Spring Street opened in 1992, the county split into northern and southern districts. Cases from Nashua and surrounding towns go there, while Manchester area towns, including Amherst, Bedford and Lyndeborough go to Manchester.

Court staff intends to keep that division distinct while northern and southern cases are being handled in Nashua, Hillsborough South Clerk Marshall Buttrick said. Construction in the Manchester courthouse is expected to last about 18 months, he said.

“(Hillsborough North Clerk) John Safford and I anticipate that we will be operating as two separate courts in the same building,” Buttrick said.

In other words, the two courts will each have their own distinct staff, including judges, and will handle only their own caseloads, he said.

The Nashua courthouse was built with a little room to grow, and two of its six courtrooms are seldom used. Officials plan to convert the assembly room where jurors gather for instructions into a courtroom, too, and also to make use of the southern wing of the lobby, which has been largely empty.

“We’ll deal with it,” Buttrick said. As for finding space for all the extra clerical staff, he said, “We’re working on that.”

Parking and access to the building seem likely to be problematic. Though the Nashua courthouse has a lot of its own, it often fills up, and parishioners at nearby St. Patrick Church and visitors to the post office next door are accustomed to using it, too.

The court will set aside reserved spaces for staff, as is done now, but everyone else will have to scramble, Buttrick said.

“Parking will be an issue . . . We’re just going to have to deal with it,” he said. “There will be very few spaces available for the general public in the parking lot here.”

The Nashua courthouse occasionally sees long lines of people waiting to clear security on days when the court is busy, as all visitors are required to have their belongings scanned and also to pass through a metal detector. While it would be easy to add extra security staff, it’s less clear whether the court could add another entry.

Hillsborough County prosecutors have offices in both courts, and they are already severely cramped in all locations, Wageling said. Wageling said she expects she will need to keep some staff somewhere in Manchester, but she has yet to figure out where to put extra prosecutors in Nashua.

“The space that we have in the courthouse itself is inadequate even for the staff that’s already in there,” she said, and there’s no extra room in the Temple Street building, either, she said.