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