Real Estate News

Judicial panel approves downtown courthouse plan

Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.
Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.

A state judicial committee on Wednesday unanimously recommended plans presented for a new 53-courtroom courthouse in downtown Sacramento in a crucial step toward replacing Sacramento Superior Court’s aging Ninth Street building.

Officials returning from the Judicial Council of California’s San Francisco offices confirmed the news in an email Wednesday afternoon, calling the panel’s decision “a great victory.”

What exactly that means for a new courthouse project remains unclear. Council officials were not immediately available for comment Wednesday. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin Culhane, the court’s presiding judge, is expected to elaborate Thursday on the committee’s recommendation and what it means for the Superior Court’s plans.

But retiring Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Hight last week called the meeting “critical” to the future of the project.

“Without this, we’re not going anywhere,” Hight said.

Sacramento Superior Court leaders who had lobbied for a 53-courtroom combined criminal and civil courthouse on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets met earlier in the day with Judicial Council of California’s court facilities advisory committee in San Francisco on options for a new building.

Two other hybrid plans were also on the table – a 44- or 33-courtroom courthouse on the railyard site combined with a vastly renovated Gordon Schaber Courthouse at 720 Ninth St.

But courts officials here, weary of a 50-year-old building long criticized as obsolete, crowded and unsafe, said the only viable option was a unified courthouse that would be home to both civil and criminal proceedings. Sacramento Superior Court officials estimate the proposed 538,000-square-foot project would cost about $493 million. The land for a new site has been purchased, and the state approved project design funding in its 2014-15 fiscal year budget.

Judges cited problems ranging from crowded courtrooms and congested jury accommodations to fire safety and insufficient holding cells for in-custody defendants.

“It would be historic if we could get a new courthouse,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown Sacramento, on Wednesday. He called the Judicial Council committee’s recommendation “the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.”

Judges have said the vacated building could be sold with proceeds potentially used to offset costs associated with a new courthouse project.

Hansen envisions a downtown education center for UC Davis or Sacramento State at a vacated Schaber Courthouse, citing its location and ability to be converted into classroom space, proximity to government and thought leaders, and land that could be home to adjacent student housing.

“It’s a beautiful midcentury structure. It needs some TLC, but I can see how it lends itself to an educational structure,” Hanson said.

The meeting comes as new and long-awaited courthouses have opened in neighboring Yolo and Sutter counties. Yolo’s sleek Main Street location in Woodland replaced its stately century-old Court Street structure last summer; and Sutter County broke the seal on its new Yuba City courthouse at Civic Center Boulevard in January.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

Related stories from Sacramento Bee