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Digging a Downtown Graveyard

We’ve seen renditions of the courthouse the State of California is threatening to inflict upon Ukiah, and the project is wrong and wrong. 

Mendocino County’s proposed courthouse is the wrong building in the wrong location. Otherwise, pretty peachy.

The structure that no one wants will harm Ukiah, a city that has suffered sufficient harm through its past 75 years and can scarcely endure more. Ukiah is now a long stretch of has-been motels interspersed with vape shops, CBD outlets, some tattoo parlors and a curious number of massage joints. And, for visual relief, a few vacant lots.

Something big, new and ugly will not help.

Ukiah’s prettiest, most impressive and significant downtown buildings have been abandoned in recent years. But our city officials, who drive past the Palace Hotel and old Post Office daily, apparently see no problems. 

A new and repugnant modern piece of architectural blight is poised to squat and metastasize on East Perkins while the semi-pretty courthouse joins the Palace, Post Office and that sad galvanized tin building, the last of its kind, in a downtown graveyard. Our alleged leaders ignore it all.

They don’t talk about what’s happened to Ukiah in the past 40 years, as if it’s not been on their watch, as if Sundays in the Park is a fair tradeoff for a broken downtown, as if the dramatic loss of city retail is made up for by Fun Banners Across State Street and Holly Jolly Trolleys at Christmastime.

City and county leaders never address the systematic hollowing out of Ukiah to make economic room for Walmart and Costco, so it’s unlikely they’ll discuss recent courthouse projects they demanded in Fort Bragg and Willits. 

Can our brilliant state and county planners assure us this next new courthouse is more necessary than the last two? 

Fort Bragg got a prefab marvel around 1995 that looked like it was delivered on a flatbed truck. Today the courtroom does nothing much beyond dog license disputes, probate formalities and other minor matters its semi-competent judge, the Most Honorable Clayton Brennan, is capable of handling.

In Willits the new two story courthouse is often depicted in architectural publications but for all the wrong reasons. Courtroom’s closed, now mostly used for storing cleaning supplies. Go ahead, lease it to Dollar General.

Now the same politicians want us to dig deep into our Visa Cards to fund another redundant, ugly court facility guaranteed to drain life and money out of Ukiah’s already wobbly downtown in order to … what, exactly?

Provide opulent splendor for judges? I’ve visited all the judges’ chambers and can tell you their offices are well beyond excellent in size and furnishings. If parking facilities are inadequate we can provide daily limousine service. 

California’s record of destroying its old buildings and replacing them with better-looking new buildings stands at Zero. Nothing that’s been torn down in the history of the state has ever seen improvement. Those demanding a new courthouse should show us a single example of a government building erected in the past 100 years as solid and beautiful as what it replaced.

This courthouse will not be an exception.

Artist renderings suggest a Russian military prison circa 1955, or a dog food factory. (NOTE: The author once worked in a dog food factory.) 

If an actual living architect drew up these plans he or she should be questioned, at length, about the project’s complete and utter lack of beauty and sense of tradition. Courthouses in America have always (until about 1950) had classic design and historic echoes of majestic strength, built on principles from our long-standing heritage from Europe.

This cheap-looking plywood sheetrock beast will cost more than $140 million and will improve the adjudication of justice not one bit. 

City and county officials should stand together, refuse to accept this proposal, and explain in plain language that it is the wrong building in the wrong location. We understand it’s the same thoughtless architectural design used in dozens of other cities, and we further understand that those cities and residents don’t seem to mind, or even notice, the squalor and degradation forced upon them. 

Ukiahans should mind, notice, and say No. 

Let’s not accept ugly schlock simply because the Sacramento-Los Angeles state power axis dictates How Things Must Be. Sometimes matters are best left alone, and this is one of those times.

Who wants a monstrous series of ugly, anonymous boxes to be the dominant structure in the county’s capital? Who wants an imitation Mendocino College campus on West Perkins, a bland collection of insurance offices? 

Who wants a bleeding wound in the center of Ukiah upon transplanting its heart to a distant precinct near the hospital? Who wants our old courthouse turned into a dismal Community Arts Center? 

Everyone you know thinks this is a ridiculous project. Ask your spouse, your neighbor, your teenager or a stranger standing in line at Safeway, and all agree it’s an expensive waste of money. 

We’re right. The politicians are wrong. 

One Comment

  1. George Dorner July 29, 2022

    The tale behind the Willits Courthouse is interesting. It was built to take advantage of a federal block grant, which otherwise “might have gone to waste”. (Does this sound familiar?) The excuse given was that the two jail cells within the justice center would serve as holding cells so prisoners didn’t have to be immediately transported to Ukiah. The courthouse was built to mimic the City Hall next door. The jail cells remained unused, the prisoners taken down over the hill to Ukiah, and the court followed suit.

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