State favors land near current building for replacement project
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s a little late in the game, but Santa Rosa is still hoping the state can be convinced to build a new $180 million criminal courthouse downtown.
State judicial officials last year rejected the idea of constructing the courthouse on the site of the downtown post office on Second Street after concluding it couldn’t be done quickly enough.
That left only one other site under active consideration, a spot beside the existing Hall of Justice in the Sonoma County administration complex.
But Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison wants to make sure the city has fully explored whether a downtown site could meet the state’s needs. She set up a three-member City Council subcommittee last week to look into the issue.
“For us, it’s a long shot, but I really didn’t want to pass up the opportunity if there was any interest,” Millison said.
Council members Jake Ours, John Sawyer and Susan Gorin agreed to sit on the committee.
After checking with state officials about the progress of negotiations with the county, Millison said she learned the state still was interested in entertaining a downtown proposal, if one were made quickly.
The state has been working with the county for more than a year and expects to make a decision on a site soon.
“The window is slightly open for someone to give us a proposal that we cannot refuse,” said Jose Guillen, executive officer for Sonoma County Superior Court.
The existing Hall of Justice was built in 1966 two miles north of downtown after the old courthouse in the heart of the city was deemed seismically unsafe. A 2008 state feasibility report described the current courthouse as crowded and unsafe.
The state has been negotiating with the county over the possible sale of a 4.6-acre site beside the existing courthouse and jail where it would construct a six-story criminal courthouse housing 15 courtrooms.
The proximity to the jail, district attorney’s office, and other public services makes the location the logical choice for the new courthouse, said Jose Obregon, Sonoma County’s general services manager. The court doesn’t stand alone, but rather is “one component of a multicomponent system,” he said.
“I feel confident that the state and the county are moving in the direction of making the new courthouse a reality here,” Obregon said. He said state officials told him they consider the county site the “preferred” site.
But the negotiations have dragged on longer than anyone expected, and parking has been “one of the issues that we’ve been struggling with in terms of the county site,” said court spokeswoman Teresa Ruano.
A 173,000-square-foot courthouse will require 450 parking spaces, according to the 2008 report. Determining whether the downtown has a location that could meet such requirements will be the subcommittee’s charge, Millison said.
The city owns two parking lots on the east side of Highway 101 that might fit the bill, including a 1.3-acre lot between the library and the post office, known as the White House site. A second possibility is a lot at Ross and B streets across from Macy’s, Millison said.
The size of the lots will be a key issue. An ideal site, according to the 2008 study, would be 6.5 acres, one acre for the building and five for parking.
Since the state rejected the post office site, it has identified another potential site on North Point Parkway, a business park in the southwest part of the city, Guillen said.
Some feel having the courthouse downtown would provide a host of benefits for the city’s civic and cultural life.
Bankruptcy attorney Richard Koman noted that most of the city’s attorneys work downtown, and going out to the county center isn’t a great experience for them. The current courthouse is a “horrible Soviet-style hulk,” parking is “a mess,” and there are few services there, he said.
“There isn’t any vibrancy at all at the county center,” Koman said.
For a city split by a highway and mall and struggling to keep its downtown vital, a new courthouse can only help, he said.
“I just think a courthouse and everything that happens around that could be an anchor for revitalization downtown,” Koman said.