A revived $118 million state plan to construct a sleek new Mendocino County Courthouse away from Ukiah’s downtown core is being cast by the state as the highest priority among its planned court construction projects in California.
The California Judicial Council envisions final design work getting under way in July, with construction scheduled for completion by 2026. The plan calls for an 82,000-square-foot, multi-story structure.
“The project is in the immediate need priority group and consequently is one of the highest priority trial court capital-outlay projects for the judicial branch,” according to a Judicial Council assessment.
The new courthouse will be the costliest civic construction project in Mendocino County’s history.
The county will decide the fate of the old courthouse, as the owner of the property. Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley said Saturday city representatives are keenly interested in working with county officials on how the 72-year-old building might be used and maintained.
“We were actively engaged in cleaning up the site for the new courthouse, and we are planning significant improvements over the next few years to the Perkin Street corridor,” said Riley.
Riley said it is going to take cooperation among public agencies, including the North Coast Railroad Authority which still owns property surrounding the new courthouse site, to make things work.
“We all need to be at the table as this unfolds,” said Riley.
The courthouse project was put on hold in 2016 because of state funding issues, but it is now being given the ‘green light’ in a move that is reviving tensions about the fate of Ukiah’s core downtown area.
Since the 1860s a courthouse has dominated the town’s historic shopping and restaurant district. The core area recently underwent a $7 million facelift with water, sewer and paving improvements, tree plantings, and new street lighting.
Two issues are key to the emerging debate: how will relocation of the courthouse away from the core area affect surrounding businesses and restaurants, and how will the appearance of a high-tech state-building fit with the small-town, rural nature of the Ukiah Valley.
Some local business owners fear the courthouse relocation will result in a serious loss of ‘foot traffic’ in a downtown already struggling to survive in face of competition from a Costco-led shopping hub on the western edge of town. For them, the state plan presents economic challenges that may undermine efforts to bounce back from public restrictions imposed during a two-year pandemic.
“What are local plans to fill the void when a new courthouse opens, and the daily foot traffic disappears,” worries Zach Schat, owner of the landmark Schat’s bakery and restaurant operation and a major downtown employer.
As it is, a global architectural firm with offices in San Francisco has been hired by the state to produce design criteria for the new Mendocino County Courthouse. It is to be constructed on an already owned 4.1-acre site fronting Perkins Street near the historic Ukiah train depot, located three long blocks from the downtown area.
Tentative plans for a seven-courtroom facility with a planned 160-vehicle parking area currently offer no spaces for local prosecutors, public defenders, and lawyers engaged in civil cases. An assumption in the local legal, civic, and business communities is that the private sector will step in and build buildings that can be leased for offices critical to court operations.
Still, the courthouse’s relocation and the expected exodus of court-related businesses from the downtown core is raising new concerns. The worry is the lack of concrete plans by city and county officials for what will become of the current courthouse, a site that has been the center of local government for more than a century.
Until the 1980s, almost all county offices were in the downtown courthouse before administrative functions were moved to a campus complex on Low Gap Road. When the state assumed control of Superior Courts statewide, courthouses were transferred to state responsibility. The current building, which has an estimated $9 million in deferred maintenance, will revert to Mendocino County ownership when the state moves out.
An expanded local court system quickly filled the current courthouse, which was built in 1950. It is a squat, fortress-like architecturally modern style that has long been referred to locally as Stalin-esque.
On the west side of the courthouse facing School Street is an iconic 1920s era attached structure that is clad in limestone and features stately columns engraved in the stone and large arching windows. The space, which once housed the county Board of Supervisors, the county administrator, and the County Clerk, is now used for jury rooms, and other court-related functions.
State court officials say the current courthouse is rated a high-risk, seismically deficient building by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It also is out of compliance with current state seismic safety, safety, and space standards.
A host of improvements are needed, including secured in custody holding areas, adequate visitor security screening areas, and separate safe and secure zones for the public, court staff, and in-custody defendants, according to the state.
While the state offers a lengthy list of justifications for the new courthouse, local business and civic leaders are expressing concern about the effects of relocating the downtown’s longstanding anchor.
“I understand we are past arguing about the state’s needs,” said Zach Schat, owner of a landmark bakery and restaurant operation directly across from the current courthouse.
Schat said he feels the challenge facing the local community is “what happens to the old building?”
“What fills the vacuum? Where is the foot traffic that downtown businesses depend on going to come from?” asked Schat.
Schat cited the prolonged uncertainty over the nearby Palace Hotel, shuttered and decaying for years. The old Post Office sits unused and boarded up.
“I keep asking city and county officials what the plans are but so far no firm answers,” said Schat.
County Supervisor Maureen Mulheren, who represents the City of Ukiah on the board, suggests in a weekly written update to constituents that there are city and county discussions ongoing.
But Mulheren offered no specifics.
“I was invited to a courthouse meeting about the new courthouse. It’s exciting to hear that this project is moving forward,” wrote Mulheren.
Mulheren said, “There will be more to come about the design of the courthouse and community meetings as well as what to do with the ‘current’ courthouse.”
Some public officials have questioned the state courthouse plans, which have been on and off for a decade. District Attorney David Eyster suggests the current building could be gutted and upgraded to meet court needs without being relocated out of the downtown area. The DA’s office is located on the ground floor below courtrooms and is linked to day-to-day operations.
Some people are encouraged that new uses for the courthouse site, and the rumored sale of the historic Palace Hotel building, could lead to the downtown revival on its.
Tom Liden, a recognized commercial photographer who is engaged in the local arts and museum communities, suggests the old courthouse could be demolished to make way for the relocation of the Mendocino County Museum from Willits to the preserved courthouse building fronting School Street.
“Ukiah could transition into a community arts center featuring the county museum, the nearby Grace Hudson Museum, and the Held-Pogue research library operated by the Mendocino County Historical Society,” said Liden.
Liden said the possible sale of the Palace Hotel to a local investor could also help stabilize the downtown area.
The possible sale of the hotel is in escrow, Deputy City Manager Riley confirmed. “We may be able to publicly discuss what we know if escrow closes,” said Riley.
Liden said a Palace development could be a force for change.
“We need to be progressive in our thinking,” said Liden.
Until new courthouse design plans are known, it is impossible to envision what a new courthouse will look like standing separate from the downtown area and facing the main Perkins Street east-west artery the town’s historic core.
CannonDesign, a global architectural firm with offices in San Francisco, is developing “design criteria” for the new Mendocino County Courthouse, according to an associate.
Blanca Bais said there are no specifics to publicly discuss at this point.
“We are only developing criteria information for future design-build selection,” Bais said.
CannonDesign’s architectural designs have been used for public courthouses across the nation, including the newly constructed Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in downtown Denver.
CannonDesign touts the Denver courthouse as one of the most “architecturally significant new justice buildings of the 21st century.”
The Denver courthouse is almost four times the proposed size of the new Mendocino County Courthouse that CannonDesign is developing for the Ukiah project.
The Mendocino project is currently in the “performance criteria” phase, according to state court officials.
A “Design-Build” phase including construction is estimated to formally begin in July of this year, state documents show. “Design-Build” is a construction technique where a team works under a single contract to provide design and construction services.
“One entity, one contract, one unified flow of work from initial concept through completion,” according to a state Judicial County description of its process.