State court officials are in final negotiations with two nationally recognized firms to jointly oversee the design, engineering, and construction of a new $144 million Mendocino County Courthouse.
The contracts are expected to be formally signed by the end of October; a step that is being described as the ‘green light’ for a long-sought local project that promises to reshape the downtown Ukiah core. The California Judicial Council currently designates the Mendocino County project, and another smaller courthouse in neighboring Lake County, as the highest priorities on a list of 20 active courthouse-related work statewide.
The soon-to-be-signed state contracts give new impetus for local agencies to prepare for changes that are coming to the core of Ukiah.
“This is a major milestone,” said Kim Turner, executive officer for the Mendocino County Superior Court. “The judges are excited. I am excited.”
Turner said she’s been engaged for months at the state level in review of proposals for the new courthouse from major construction and architectural firms. In late September, the state selected Hansel Phelps Corp. and Fentress Architects, two Colorado-based firms with experience in designing and building state-of-the-art government, academic, medical, and transportation facilities across the U.S. and around the world. Both firms are highly rated nationally for embracing ‘green’ design and construction techniques.
Hansel Phelps and Fentress each have Northern California regional offices and have worked together in a ‘design and build’ process that is now a state requirement. Their completed projects include the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland and a new administrative complex in Contra Costa County.
“The state process is very complex and detailed but once the contracts are formally signed, we are there,” said Turner. She said the formal awarding of the contracts is expected by Oct. 31. The official timetable now is a year-long development of final design and engineering plans followed by a review by the Division of State Architect and the state Fire Marshal.
Construction at the Ukiah site is slated to begin in early 2025, according to Blaine Corren, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of California. The state acquired the site in 2016, and initially planned the new courthouse to be completed by 2020 but budget crunches delayed the project until now.
If all goes well for the Ukiah project, Turner said, “It is possible we could have the first spade in the ground by this time next year.”
The new 82,000-square-foot courthouse will be built on a 4.1-acre site that wraps around the historic Ukiah Train Depot on Perkins Street. Existing railroad tracks run immediately west of the location.
A conceptual design prepared for the new courthouse in 2021 depicts a three-story block-like structure surrounded by parking for 160 vehicles. The initial proposal drew a lukewarm response from the public.
Turner said the two selected firms are likely to present modifications to the existing design concept for the new seven-courtroom building, which was specifically developed for the rectangular-shaped site south of Perkins Street.
Turner said there are limitations, however, to possible changes in the current concept because of the physical space available for the building, parking, and other ancillary needs.
“Also, we cannot exceed the approved budget, or the square footage,” said Turner.
Turner said once final plans are in place for the new courthouse, there will be an opportunity for public review locally.
The new courthouse is to be built three long blocks away from its historic site in the center of Ukiah since the 1860s.
The fate of the current 1950s-era main courthouse and an adjacent century-old limestone-clad building fronting School Street remains uncertain. Ownership will revert to the county of Mendocino County when the courts move into the new courthouse.
The existing courthouse is a mishmash of offices and courtrooms, with elevator access limited to three of its five floors. Millions of dollars in deferred maintenance undermines the structural integrity of the 72-year-old building, which has been labeled a ‘high-risk seismically deficient building’ by federal agencies. As it is, the current courthouse suffers from inadequate heating and cooling systems, inmate security issues, and ‘woefully inadequate’ state and public parking even with city-owned parking lots in surrounding areas.
State officials from the beginning rejected any possibility of gutting and remodeling the current courthouse as some officials including District Attorney David Eyster advocated. The existing structure is considered ‘seriously flawed,’ according to a state analysis. Currently, the county District Attorney’s Office occupies most of the ground floor but there is no room provided in the new courthouse.
There has been talk of razing the existing courthouse structure that fronts State Street and turning the space into a new downtown square. The historic limestone-clad annex facing School Street could be saved for other public use, according to proponents.
Locally, it is a dollars and cents issue that is fueling uncertainty surrounding the demise of the county courthouse downtown.
The city of Ukiah hopes a new courthouse will spur commercial and retail development along a random section of Perkins Street but there is no longer a redevelopment agency to help finance any development-related projects.
At the county level, finances are shaky at best. There has been talk that some scattered county offices could be consolidated in the old courthouse, possibly saving lease and maintenance payments but raising the question of what agency would be responsible for costs to bring up the building up to code and seismic safety standards. Whether the county has significant money available for any major upgrades is questionable. Some members of the current county Board of Supervisors insist the county is already suffering from a $7-$10 million structural budget deficit.
In the private sector, meanwhile, downtown shop and restaurant owners are worried that relocation of the county courthouse from its historic site will seriously alter the volume of foot traffic that they depend on.
City and county representatives have formed an ad hoc committee and are engaged in talks about the future of downtown without the courthouse at its heart but so far, no plans have emerged.
What is clear is the new state-financed courthouse is likely to be the costliest local public works project ever, and its relocation from Ukiah’s core promises to reshape the face of downtown.