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State lays out plans for new downtown Sacramento courthouse

State court officials have for years lamented conditions at the Sacramento Superior Court building downtown, but were stymied by lack of funds during the recession to build a new courthouse.

The 49-year-old building on Ninth Street is undersized, they say. Add-on courtrooms are crammed in side hallways. Some offices have been forced out to rented space in other buildings.

Presiding Judge Robert Hight said the building design is also unsafe. The elevator for ‘in-custody’ defendants stops only at the fourth floor, forcing sheriffs deputies to walk defendants down public hallways to courtrooms. “It’s ludicrous,” Hight said.

Now, after three years on the shelf, plans for a new $300 million courthouse are moving forward. The state closed escrow last week on a $10 million purchase of a block-sized parcel in the downtown Sacramento railyard. Hight, local politicians and downtown officials will gather at the site Fridayto discuss next steps.

“I feel elated,” Hight said. “This has been one of the major things I’ve been working on for four years.”

Led by two Sacramento legislators, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, the state this year committed $27 million to the Sacramento project to be used for planning, engineering and site preparation.

“It was logical,” Steinberg said. “During the recession, (the Legislature) had reluctantly agreed to take money from the courthouse construction fund to minimize cuts, which were significant for the courts in general. We’re starting to replenish that.”

The new building is expected to be five stories tall and hold 44 courtrooms for criminal trials. The current courthouse will stay open to handle civil cases. The Sixth and H streets site is two blocks from the existing courthouse, and across the street from the federal courthouse.

The project prep work will take 18 months to two years, Hight said. Construction will take another three years. Funding has not yet been formally appropriated for construction, but Curtis Child, chief operating officer for the Judicial Council of California, said court officials believe the Legislature has signaled strong support for moving forward.

The courthouse project is expected to be a catalyst for development in the railyard.

“It’s exciting to have them as a major anchor tenant in what will be a dynamic urban project in downtown,” said Denton Kelley, managing principal of LDK Ventures, a local development group that plans to take ownership of much of the railyard site later this year in a purchase deal with current owner, Inland American Real Estate Trust. “The timing sequencing fits very well with the (planned) first stage of development in the railyards.”

His group plans about 200 units of affordable housing on blocks adjacent to the courthouse site, likely in 2016.