Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace the old Gordon Schaber Courthouse they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe. Andrew Seng aseng@sacbee.com
Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace the old Gordon Schaber Courthouse they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe. Andrew Seng aseng@sacbee.com

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Sacramento courthouse plan clears another hurdle

By Darrell Smith

dvsmith@sacbee.com

February 26, 2016 05:44 PM

Plans for a new multimillion-dollar railyard courthouse in downtown Sacramento sailed through the state’s judicial council Friday weeks after receiving a council committee’s key early endorsement.

The Judicial Council of California approved plans for Sacramento Superior Court’s proposed $493 million project, a 538,000-square-foot, 53-courtroom unified criminal and civil courthouse designed to replace an aging Gordon Schaber Courthouse long seen as unsafe, overcrowded and obsolete. The proposed Downtown Sacramento Capital Project now heads to the state’s Department of Finance.

Securing funding is expected to be difficult, but court officials hope crews can break ground on a new downtown courthouse in the next two years.

“(T)hey need desperately a courthouse in Sacramento. They need a courthouse that (complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act), that is secure for the citizens of Sacramento and a courthouse that will meet the needs of the citizens of Sacramento for years to come,” said presiding appellate justice Brad Hill, who chairs the council’s court facilities advisory committee, in presenting the Sacramento project at the council’s Friday meeting in San Francisco.

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Hill’s committee unanimously approved the proposal Feb. 3, and called on the full judicial council to approve the scope, budget and schedule of the plan.

But the committee’s aye vote came with conditions: The judicial council cannot commit to construction until funding legislation has been enacted, and once the courthouse planned for H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets is complete, the council must find a way to dispose of the vacant Schaber building. Sacramento Superior Court leaders have suggested that the building – a full block in downtown Sacramento – could be sold with proceeds going toward the new project.

State finance officials must weigh in because of the changes to the size and scope of project and are expected to receive some proposal documents as early as Tuesday, said presiding Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin Culhane. Originally estimated at $439 million, the project was once envisioned as a 44-room, 405,000-square-foot criminal courthouse that would stand with a refurbished but smaller Schaber courthouse.

That proposal and a similar two-courthouse option have since been shunted aside as not cost-effective.

“There are a number of judges who have indicated the need to build a modern courthouse was clear,” Culhane said following Friday’s meeting. “A number indicated that they had seen the current state of our facilities and that trying to break the project into pieces was not cost-effective. We’re pretty hopeful that (a scope change) is a smart change.”

Finding and securing funding to build the $493 million downtown courthouse on the fringe of the railyards is expected to be difficult. However, court officials hope crews can break ground on a new downtown home for Sacramento Superior Court within the next two years, with construction taking another three years. Seattle-based firm NBBJ is the project’s architect and would begin developing design plans upon finance officials’ approval and when funding is identified.

For years, Sacramento courts and law enforcement officials have bemoaned the state of the 50-year-old Schaber courthouse, complaining of its crowded jury assembly room and courtrooms, its lack of holding cells for in-custody defendants and its various safety and security deficiencies. As late as 2008, a new downtown courthouse was considered by the judicial council as a high-priority construction project with funding authorized in the state’s 2009 budget act, but was indefinitely shelved by the council.

“The vote today by the judicial council … recognizes the critical and dire need in Sacramento County for a new, modern courthouse,” said assistant presiding Sacramento Superior Court Judge David De Alba. “The place was built 50 years ago. We’ve outgrown the plant.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith