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New Courthouse; Same Old Problems

A new $118 million Mendocino County Courthouse’s design will highlight the “casual lifestyle” of the Ukiah Valley while incorporating the latest construction technologies including onsite solar power generation, according to state court representatives.

“It is going to be a light-filled, welcoming building to the public, and it will be incredibly efficient,” said Court Executive Officer Kim Turner.

A clearer picture of the new facility will be made public May 26 when state court officials in San Francisco meet and review a 200-page report on the new Ukiah courthouse. A four-year design/construction phase beginning July 1 could be triggered if plans for the new courthouse are approved by a state court advisory committee as expected.

“We are expecting approval, and we are preparing to move forward,” said Turner. The Perkins Street site for the new courthouse was selected a decade ago but state funding withered, and the project was put on hold in 2016.

Now the revived courthouse project is changing how local officials are seeing the future of local court operations, and Ukiah’s downtown.

The new courthouse is likely to be the costliest local public works project ever, and it promises to reshape the face of the city’s downtown by shifting the historic site of the center of local government three blocks east to state-owned land along the railroad tracks and adjoining the historic Ukiah Railroad Depot.

Funding for the new seven-courtroom building is included in the state’s proposed budget for 2022-23. The Ukiah project is ranked second on a priority list for courthouse construction projects planned this year statewide. A smaller, $51.2 million new courthouse in neighboring Lake County is the state’s top “immediate need.” The Ukiah courthouse is labeled an ‘immediate need’ project by the state.

So far, the design criteria established for the Ukiah project focuses on a modern courthouse with upgrades that will fit the needs of the courts while blending with a “community lifestyle,” said Turner. “We are hoping for a structure that will fit into its surroundings,” she said.

While the appearance of the building is critical, Turner said its function is paramount. “We are going to get a building with architectural merit but more importantly one that will allow the courts to be moved out of the current structure that is substantially out of compliance with safety, seismic, and Judicial Council space standards.”

The existing courthouse is a mishmash of offices, and courtrooms. It is a blend of two old buildings: a century-old section fronting School Street which used to house the County of Mendocino’s administrative offices, and a new 1950s structure facing State Street where courts, holding cells, jury rooms, and the District Attorney’s Office have long been located. The building even once housed the county jail.

State officials from the beginning rejected any possibility of gutting and remodeling the current courthouse as some officials have advocated, including District Attorney David Eyster. The state said the current structure is seriously flawed, including being rated by federal agencies as a “high-risk, seismically deficient building” with limited access for disabled individuals. There is elevator access to only 3 of 5 floors. The building suffers from inadequate heating and cooling systems, cramped office spaces, and inmate security issues. Staff and public parking is woefully inadequate, the state contends, even with city-owned parking lots in surrounding areas.

An estimated $9 million in deferred maintenance costs further undermines the 72-year-old building, a county-owned facility that for the last several years has been managed by the state court system

The new Ukiah courthouse will be low slung because its building height will be limited to three stories as the new site is located at the northern edge of the flight approach into Ukiah Municipal Airport.

“The new building will settle into the surrounding area. It will not loom above neighbors,” said Turner.

Besides the ability to generate its own power on site, Turner said the new courthouse offers advantages including: 

• A secure, dedicated in-custody sally port and holding areas for prisoners. 

• Secured on-site parking for court staff and 160 parking spaces for jurors and the public. 

• Internal circulation that will keep separate zones for the public, staff, and in-custody defendants. Inmates will be kept in individual holding cells next to each courtroom, and reachable only by secured elevators.

• Ample visitor security screening areas at the building entrance.

• New attorney-client interview rooms.

• Accessible public spaces that meet requirements of the federal American Disabilities Act.

• Larger jury assembly and deliberation rooms.

Although advantages of a new building are cited, there remain questions about how relocating the county courthouse will affect the core downtown area.

Where court-related offices such as the District Attorney and Public Defenders will be housed beginning in 2026 is unknown. How county staff in those offices will be able to connect with the state courts almost hourly as they do now also is unclear. Locals know that winter rains and hot summer days might make walking between separate public offices difficult, for example.

There is speculation that a separate six-acre parcel adjoining the new courthouse could be developed for court-related office space. But uncertainty clouds that possibility because the property is publicly held by what was the North Coast Railroad Authority, which is now being dissolved and its assets transferred to the state-owned Great Redwood Trail Agency. Whether it could become available for commercial office space development is unclear.

“The city has been involved in discussions about the future development of those six acres but because of the change in ownership and any project managers, it will probably result in a restart,” said Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley. Riley noted that the city in past years aided the state in environmental cleanup of the new courthouse site. While those requirements have been met, the city is still concerned about “the functionality of the site as it relates to the (new) courthouse structure.”

Riley, in a 2019 report to the City Council, specifically addressed concerns about: 

• The “functionality of surrounding streets, and the development of public infrastructure that will allow the build-out of the entire 11 acres.” 

• The “smooth integration of this project with the existing downtown.” 

• And the “beautification of this important corridor” from the new courthouse to the core downtown.

Whether Clay Street will be punched through on the east to Leslie Street remains uncertain, said Riley. She said there is a privately owned parcel in the path of any Clay Street extension. While the Clay and Leslie streets link was advocated as far back as 1995 in the city’s General Plan, Riley said, “There are no plans to do anything at this time.” Improvements are also hampered by the lack of redevelopment funding, which the state ended a decade ago, according to Riley.

An even larger concern for some is the fate of the current courthouse, which has anchored Ukiah’s core downtown for decades. Local shop owners and other core businesses worry that relocation of the courthouse might lead to an exodus of related legal offices. The loss of “foot traffic” generated by current court operations alarms some already struggling downtown businesses.

As it is, the County of Mendocino owns the current two court buildings and the land. Once construction begins, the County Board of Supervisors will have to decide future uses of the courthouse, if any.

A primary issue is whether the county will have any money available to upgrade the current building to meet potentially costly seismic standards and disability access issues for other public uses.

If the current courthouse is eventually abandoned and demolished, the question then becomes what of the historic site’s future? Riley and other downtown advocates lean toward eventually tearing down of the 1950s courthouse structure, possibly preserving the historic century-old building facing School Street and creating a new downtown plaza in the courthouse’s place. They suggest the current Alex Thomas Plaza between State and School streets two blocks south of the courthouse could be moved to the historic heart of downtown, and its current location made available for development.

Court Executive Officer Turner said if the state panel on May 26 moves the courthouse into the design and construction phase, public meetings will be scheduled in Ukiah for review of any state-approved plans.

The state meeting can be accessed beginning at 10 a.m. May 26 via a webcast at jcc.granicus.com/player/event/1732

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