Friday, July 19, 2024

State Poised to Seek Bids for Mendocino County’s New $118 Million Courthouse

The current state of the Mendocino County Courthouse [Picture from the Mendocino County Superior Court Facebook page]

State court officials are ready to call for bids for the construction of a planned $118 million new Mendocino County Courthouse in Ukiah.

The new court building will be erected on the south side of Perkins Street, on a four-acre site wrapping around the Ukiah Train Depot, a 1920s-era local historical landmark. Completion is expected in 2026. 

The state project is a significant shift in the historic center of court operations. The new location means that for the first time since 1860 the Mendocino County Courthouse will be found out of Ukiah’s core downtown.

If the California Judicial Council acts favorably as expected this coming week the project will move into a final design and build phase. The action virtually assures the construction of the largest public works project ever in Mendocino County. It also will redirect future commercial development in Ukiah to the east.

A call for bids to construct the new courthouse is a critical turning point in the state’s decade-long effort to move out of an aging 1950s-era building hampered by seismic issues, inadequate handicapped access, cramped offices, and failing heating, cooling, and air circulation systems. 

Proposed mock-ups of Mendocino County’s new courthouse

“It is exciting. This project is finally moving forward,” said Kim Turner, Court Executive Officer for the Mendocino County Superior Court.

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State plans for the new courthouse stalled in 2016 because of the lack of money. State court officials earlier this year revived the Ukiah courthouse project, labeling it an “immediate need.” It is the second-highest priority on a list of courthouse construction projects planned statewide.

Project details are still sketchy, but some basics are outlined in a 175-page document that sets design and construction criteria for prospective bidders.

The proposed courthouse is contemporary in design, rising three stories above a surrounding landscape of mixed uses, some dating from a century ago. The old Northwestern Railroad tracks run along the western edge of the new courthouse site.

Planners envision rows of trees, native landscaping, and a boulevard-like entrance to soften the scale and overall appearance. A landscaped north public parking area will wrap around the train depot, with more public and staff parking on the south side of the new courthouse. Eventually, Clay Street may be extended through the four-acre site to Leslie Street.

Infrastructure in the new building is to be designed with advanced heating, cooling, and water retention systems, and sophisticated building-wide communication technologies.

In short, it will be unlike any other building in Mendocino County.

Still unknown are any development plans for seven publicly owned acres east of the new courthouse site. The two parcels will be separated by a planned “Courthouse Drive,” and a new bridge crossing Gibson Creek will supply a new entrance from Perkins Street.

A draft of the planned location of Ukiah’s new courthouse

The defunct North Coast Railroad Authority originally owned the seven-acre site. On March 1, that agency became the “Great Redwood Trail Agency” which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It is charged with planning, building, and supporting a planned 320-mile hiking and biking trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay.

Mendocino County Supervisor Maureen Mulheren, a board director of the new Redwood Trail Agency, said she is unaware of any plans the trail agency may have to develop the property.

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“I hope we learn something soon at one of our meetings,” said Mulheren.

There is speculation that the trail agency site will be developed to house critical court-related agencies that are not included in the state’s courthouse plans. Specifically, future locations of county offices like the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender are at issue. The DA’s Offices historically have been found in the current county courthouse three long blocks from the planned new facility. 

How county employees in the DA and Public Defender’s offices will interact with the new courthouse especially in inclement weather when it opens is unclear. There will be 160 parking spaces at the new site, but will dozens of county employees be asked to get in their cars and drive to the new site in the face of cold rainy weather, or scorching hot summer days?

“All of the options are being explored,” said Turner, the Court Executive Officer.

The City of Ukiah is engaged with county and state officials in resolving such issues. 

For the city, how to bridge the gap between the new courthouse site and the historic downtown area, and local businesses dependent on foot traffic generated by the current courthouse, still is an issue.

Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley said the perceived gap “has already been bridged somewhat by the recently completed Downtown Streetscape Project.’ 

Riley said the city is designing street improvements along Perkins Street between Main and Orchard streets. 

“That project is likely to be under construction in 2023,” said Riley. 

For the past decade the City of Ukiah has been engaged in planning for the new courthouse, and its effects on the core downtown area, said Riley. 

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“The stage was set in 2012 when a new ‘downtown zoning code’ was adopted. It addresses the downtown core, much of the new courthouse site, and the entire Perkins Street corridor and was developed with many years of community input,” said Riley.

Riley said the city believes the zoning will “help ensure that the entire area has a cohesive feel, similar landscaping, is walkable, and has compatible uses and business types.”

The zoning admittedly doesn’t have the “ability to change the entire area overnight,” said Riley but it will ensure that “each time a property within the zone is developed, it is developed to the approved standards, thereby making incremental progress toward fully closing that ‘gap’,” said Riley.

The Ukiah Train Depot, which will be preserved by the new Mendocino County Courthouse [Photograph by Larry Myhre via his Flickr account]

In the meantime, the city has a long-term lease on the historic train depot, first reached with the old railroad agency and now continued with the new state trails agency.

“Many years ago, we received a grant to complete its historic renovation, and the requirements of that grant will continue to determine how the facility can be used while ensuring that its historic design elements are maintained,” said Riley.

Riley said the city expects there will be “significant demand” for leased space in the historic building once the new courthouse is developed.

When the new courthouse is completed, the current structure which has been leased by the state will revert back to county ownership.

Its fate is uncertain. The state estimates the building needs at least $9 million in repairs. In reality, the current courthouse is two structures merged into one. 

The rear part facing Ukiah’s School Street is a notable limestone-clad building. The larger section facing State Street is a mish-mash of offices and steep stairways. Only one elevator serves the public and staff.

Some civic leaders are suggesting the demolition of the main building, creating a plaza in its place, and anchoring the west side with the renovation of the older building facing School Street.

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  1. Too bad they can’t do a new re-build of people along with the new courthouse. Our community is in very sad shape and needs a major overhaul. On a different note. Currently, disabled parking for the courthouse is terrible. 3 spaces on School Street and 2 of those are used daily by court employees. One car behind the Courthouse is usually there all day every day. I get there are disabled employees but come on! I happen to know who drives the car. I totally understand the plight of disabled folks, I’m personally 100% disabled. When I do need to be down town it’s a struggle to find a place to park that’s close enough for me to walk. Is this any way to treat a community member who has given so much to this community? Just an FYI, if you have disabled plates you can park on the street all day with no time limits. Maybe that would open up a disabled spot for someone else.

  2. What an incredible waste of taxpayer money when citizens are in difficult times following the disastrous Covid years! Homeless people on the streets, folks with mental and emotional crises, poverty becoming more of an everyday reality for many citizens and these geniuses decide to spend millions of dollars on a new courthouse. Is it any wonder that public support for high spending wasteful governments – local, state and federal- is at an all time low, despite the flowery descriptions of these corruption riddled boondoggles? Rome is burning folks and hard times are already here. High time to rein in this reckless spending and get rid of the political drones. Our system of democratic government is on the very brink of collapse and a new temple for the rulers isn’t going to stop the coming storm.

  3. From the provided elevations, it looks like a larger version of the sterile box of a building that will be left behind. Wonder what will actually happen to that – the old PO on Oak St is still sitting empty (behind a chain-link fence), as is what’s left of the Palace Hotel. The historical Train Depot would have made a better model to emulate. That will probably become a trendy lunch spot for all the new local foot traffic, and weary travelers off the Great Redwood Trail. Unless the lights go out first. “Exciting”, eh?


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