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by Mike Geniella, December 1, 2009
The economic viability of Ukiah’s historic downtown is going to be shaped not by warring development factions but by a pending state decision on where to build a new Mendocino County Courthouse.
The state Department of Finance is expected to act by May.
The state is already moving ahead with new courthouse projects in Santa Rosa and Lakeport, expected to cost a combined $300 million or more as part of a statewide bond program.
But while smaller in scale, a new Ukiah courthouse is bound to have more dramatic effects given growing fears over the future of its historic retail hub. A string of freeway-oriented shopping centers, and on-going efforts to lure big-box retailers like Costco and Target, are hurting locally owned businesses.
Anti-development proponents celebrated the defeat last month of a ballot measure that Ohio-based developers had hoped would allow them to circumvent local planning review of a $700 million mall complex at the old Masonite mill site north of town. But they said little about the city of Ukiah’s efforts to buy up land in the Redwood Business Park south of town in a bid to lure big box-retailers there. Unexplained is how local merchants can continue to survive the onslaught.
Some city leaders envision downtown evolving into a specialty shopping hub along the lines of Healdsburg or Windsor in neighboring Sonoma County. But there have been few successes.
What remains strong are local businesses like Schat’s bakery, Mendocino Book Co., Habitat, Patrona’s and North State Café, and Savings Bank of Mendocino County.
A new courthouse site along the south side of Perkins Street seems to be the most favored, since county officials abandoned their efforts to secure construction of a sprawling criminal justice complex including a new jail and courthouse along the Highway 101 freeway about a mile east of downtown.
“That proposal is dead in the water,” said county Supervisor John McCowen. McCowen said the county simply doesn’t have any money to contribute to such a project’s costs.
McCowen said county officials have decided to step back and let Ukiah government leaders and a local courthouse advisory committee work with the state to select a new courthouse site, and finance construction through a $5 billion state bond program.
“If there’s a reason for us to get involved at some future date, we might. But right now, we’re on the sidelines,” he said.
Ukiah City Planner Charley Stump said city leaders are pushing for a downtown courthouse site. “It’s the highest of priorities,” said Stump.
A downtown courthouse is critical to the fate of the city’s historic retail hub, which relies on a steady parade of local attorneys and staffs, courthouse patrons and county employees, some local shoppers and curious visitors to fill its coffers. Any courthouse project outside the area could decimate the downtown core, advocates feel.
The Mendocino County Courthouse has anchored downtown since the 19th century. An ornate brick courthouse was demolished in the early 1950s, and replaced by a three-story courthouse that’s long been criticized for its squat, institutional-style architecture. Even its harshest critics, however, agree its presence has continued to anchor a downtown buffeted by retail development elsewhere in the Ukiah Valley.
Public debate has focused on competing big box, freeway-oriented developments proposed for the old Masonite mill complex at the northern edge of town, or a mish-mash of retail development within city limits at a site on Ukiah’s southern edge called the Redwood Business Park. Despite a nearly $1 million campaign to circumvent local planning review, Ohio developers in early November lost a bid to move ahead with a Masonite mall complex.
County voters’ defeat of Measure A was hailed by mall opponents, who rallied supporters by declaring the fate of downtown and local retailers was at issue. Little was made of Ukiah city efforts to buy up land in the competing business park, and lure some of the same big box retailers to that site.