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New approach to courthouse construction

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Bradford Andrews isn’t holding his breath, but a proposal he has long been advocating for government and the private sector to join forces in building a new Long Beach courthouse has gained two influential converts.

Both Governor Schwarzenegger and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George have expressed interest in the idea, which could, in its broadest form, mean putting Starbucks and other small retailers, as well as the offices of county prosecutors, public defenders and even private attorneys in the courthouse building. A broad plan might also include having the developers maintain and lease back and eventually sell the property to the state.(See President Sheldon Sloan's related column.)

“We hope that we will be funded in the upcoming state budget (the May revisions from the governor’s office) to initiate a process to replace the Long Beach courts using a public-private partnership as a way to deliver and finance the project,” said Kim Davis, director of the Office of Court Construction and Management for the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). “The governor and the chief justice are very much interested in having the judicial branch take the lead in implementing this kind of model for other state infrastructure.”

From Andrews’ point of view, such a partnership is long overdue. He has been working since 1991 to get the 1960s-era Long Beach courthouse replaced while dealing with the day-to-day annoyances and hazards of working in an overcrowded, leaky, rat-infested, electrically challenged building with routinely inoperable elevators and escalators and closed restrooms.

But Andrews knows all too well that Long Beach isn’t an exception in terms of having a courthouse that needs to be replaced: courthouses across the state are crumbling in the wake of maintenance continually deferred, not to mention burgeoning court caseloads and technological needs that weren’t imagined when the buildings were constructed.

As Chief Justice George put it in his State of the Judiciary address, “Many of California’s courts are seismically vulnerable or are plagued with dangerous fire or mold conditions. Many facilities are incapable of meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 40 percent of our court facilities, shackled prisoners are brought to criminal courtrooms through public hallways.”

Allan Parachini, public information director for the Los Angeles Superior Court, says local court officials are frustrated because they have to sit by while others decide — or not decide — their fate. The transfer of the courts from county to state authority is moving slowly, although George said he hopes to transfer 100 of the state’s 451 court facilities to the state by this summer, with the goal of transferring another 200 in 2008.

In the meantime, the courts are in limbo. Parachini said there is  “no incentive for counties to replace courthouses. There is no incentive for counties to upgrade them. There is even no incentive for counties to maintain them well.” At the same time, he added, the state has no money and no adequate process to remedy the situation and “there is little serious prospect of money” because of the many competing interests for state infrastructure funds, from roads and bridges to levees and dams. Hence the particular interest in a new funding mechanism like a public-private partnership.

Court officials are somewhat vague about the specifics of what a public-private partnership might look like because the idea is still in the talking stages with the governor and legislators, but the AOC’s Davis said that one of its most attractive features is that the private sector could put together the financing, construction, operation and maintenance. “There’s an incentive for the developer to provide quality construction if they have to operate and maintain the building,” she said. A project also could be designed and built with the idea of future court growth so that when the court needed more space, it could be made available.

Kate Howard, director of the AOC’s Office of Governmental Affairs, also said that a public-private partnership can “potentially significantly reduce the amount of time from planning to occupancy. We’re hoping to achieve a way to streamline the process for courthouse construction so there aren’t as many serial approvals needed throughout the process.”

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill has recommended rejecting the idea of a public-private courthouse construction partnership, saying it “provides a weak model for legislative control and oversight.” AOC officials have responded that they are working out accountability details and that a more detailed proposal is forthcoming.

Judge Andrews said three developers already have said they would like to be involved in a Long Beach project. Long Beach has the advantage of having the current courthouse — dilapidated, rat-infested, leaky and overcrowded as it is — on prime property directly across from the ocean.

The idea there would be to sell that land to the developers for condos or other buildings and then buy another, more inland site for the courthouse. The Judicial Council has proposed construction of a $321.5 million new courthouse in Long Beach with 34 courtrooms, seven more than the courthouse now has. The council also put Long Beach near the top of its priority list.

The major obstacle, Andrews said, is getting the state to commit to a long-term lease. But he believes the money is available, either through the Trial Courts Construction Fund or by changing priorities, such as creating a statewide case reporting system.

He also laments that the county is spending $14 million — money that could be used for new construction — for seismic upgrades on a building that should be razed. In the meantime, while nothing happens, construction costs are increasing 16 percent a year, he said.

Andrews is convinced the public-private partnership could work, and he is glad to hear that it’s being considered at the highest state levels. But, as someone who has been touting the idea for years, he is taking a wait-and-see attitude. “When I see our name on the list (of projects slated for construction) and I see approval of a proposal to replace this courthouse, then I’ll believe it’s a top priority,” he said. “Nobody has put their money where their mouth is yet.”

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