Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sacramento Bee: New County Courthouse Slated for Downtown Railyard

Railyard site recommended for new Sacramento courthouse

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
It turns out the first public building in Sacramento's downtown railyard probably won't be an arena but a state courthouse costing nearly twice as much.

In a recommendation that delighted city officials and railyard owners, a state advisory panel has pegged the block on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets as the best site for a massive new Sacramento Superior Court building.

The railyard site won the group's recommendation over the empty 300 block of Capitol Mall in part because it's just three blocks from the existing courthouse.

State Administrative Office of the Courts officials said they still must finish an environmental analysis of the site, negotiate a purchase price and obtain state Public Works Board approval.

But city officials and the railyard ownership group cheered the decision Tuesday, saying the courthouse is the kind of large-scale project they've been looking for to jumpstart development in the mainly vacant 200-plus-acre downtown railyard.

"We're absolutely elated," said Jared Ficker, spokesman for Inland American Real Estate Trust, the Illinois-based investment group that took ownership of the railyard last fall in foreclosure. "We listened to their needs."

Sacramento Assistant City Manager John Dangberg, who served on the judicial advisory committee, said locating a major employment center on the edge of the railyard represents a needed first step toward expanding downtown onto the site.

"We really think it will be a catalyst and activate that edge of the railyards," Dangberg said.

The $440 million state project involves building 44 new courtrooms, mainly for criminal trials, at the site directly behind the federal courthouse on I Street.

The existing Gordon Schaber Courthouse, constructed in 1965, is overcrowded and out-of-date, judicial officials say.

"We're busting at the seams," said Sacramento Judge Robert Hight, advisory committee chairman. "We have more cases than the courthouse can handle."

The building houses twice as many courtrooms as its original design anticipated. Elevators for in-custody defendents go only to the fourth floor. "If you have a trial on the fifth or sixth floor, you have to take them down the public hallway," Hight said.

The existing courthouse will continue to be used after a new courthouse is built but will house only 12 civil and five criminal courtrooms, officials said. The proximity of the two courthouses will provide convenience for attorneys, sheriff's officials and others, Hight said.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2013 and finish in 2015. The building is likely to be 10 to 12 stories high.

Financing for the project, and $6 billion in other courthouse projects in the state, comes mainly from fees, penalties, and assessments on people in criminal, traffic, civil, family and probate courts.

The city's Dangberg said city officials want to work with the state on the building's design to make sure it is open and accessible from the street, and encourages people to walk to and from the commercial and residential areas that are expected to be built over the years in the railyard.

While the railyard appears likely to land the courthouse, another prize – a new sports and entertainment arena – remains elusive despite years of attempts by city officials.

Even though the Sacramento Kings are considering moving to Anaheim, Mayor Kevin Johnson said he still hopes to be able to finance an arena at the railyard, possibly west of the planned courthouse.

City officials say there is enough room for both facilities. Neither can be built, however, until the existing rail tracks are moved a few hundred feet north to free up land. The city plans to break ground on the track relocation project later this month.

"With track relocation starting, and if the courthouse decides to go to railyards, then we are well on our way into expanding our downtown into our railyards," city transportation head Jerry Way said Tuesday.

A public meeting is scheduled to discuss the courthouse project environmental review at 5:30 p.m. May 4 in Department 1 at the Schaber Courthouse, 720 Ninth St.

The review is expected to include, among other issues, a look at the effect the new building will have on downtown traffic.

A public meeting is scheduled to discuss the courthouse project environmental review at 5:30 p.m. May 4 in Department 1 at the Schaber Courthouse, 720 Ninth St.

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