MODESTO — For more than two years, court officials have been pondering where to build a massive new courthouse in downtown Modesto.
The proposed $278.3 million project has been delayed repeatedly, frustrating landowners who are weary of competing for the deal.
A new committee will weigh in on the decision May 7, evaluating which of two city blocks off H Street would be the most cost effective to build on.
"We are very focused on making sure the people's money is spent efficiently," assured Justice Jeffrey Johnson, chairman of the state's Courthouse Cost Reduction Subcommittee.
An "ill-advised" land purchase could unnecessarily inflate construction costs, Johnson warned, so his committee has been tasked with reviewing the pros and cons of both sites.
Vying for the courthouse are:
The block between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets, which is owned by the city of Modesto and five private landowners.
The block between 13th and 14th streets and H and I streets, where The Bee leases space.
After Johnson's committee has its say, the state will bring its recommendation to a local courthouse advisory group. That group is expected to meet in mid-May, and only after it hears the news will the site selection be made public.
That's the optimistic timeline.
Johnson's committee could demand more information or disagree with where court officials want to build, which could cause delays.
"Our committee is going to make all the decisions we deem necessary," said Johnson, insisting his committee will not rubber-stamp anything. "We are a critical part of the approval process."
Johnson, a Los Angeles appellate court justice, said taking a "few more months to make the right decision" would be worth it if it could prevent a costly mistake.
Some downtown landowners, however, have about had it with the state's repeated delays.
"We're all in favor (of fiscal prudence), but just make a decision," said Niniv Tamimi, the development partner who manages The Bee property.
When Tamimi's investors purchased that block two years ago from The McClatchy Co., the property already was considered a potential courthouse site.
The state's delays in deciding whether it wants the land or not have "caused the financial performance of this asset to dwindle," Tamimi said. "This has put a cloud on our marketing efforts" to lease the mostly empty building to new tenants or sell it to someone else.
"This could drag on for another 10 years. Who knows?" Tamimi said. "It's been tough on the property owners of both sites to just keep waiting and waiting."
Greg Reed agrees. He owns the Turner Building, an office complex that anchors the corner of Ninth and H streets.
"It's starting to have an effect on my livelihood," said Reed, noting how his tenants are concerned about whether they'll have to move. He said the state's repeated requests for more and more information about his property costs him money and wastes his time.
The courthouse site was supposed to be purchased a year ago. Because the process has dragged on, Reed said, landowners don't know whether to invest in fixing up their properties.
"In the Turner Building, for example, I would really like to remodel my lobby," Reed said. But it makes no sense to do that if the state is going to buy the building and tear it down.
"They just don't understand" the impact of the repeated delays, Reed said about state officials. "It's frustrating."
But Johnson sees it differently
"We can't accelerate our process just because people have economic interests," Johnson said. He credits his committee with saving taxpayers $122 million since it started reviewing courthouse construction plans last year.
California had planned to build or renovate 31 courthouses, but budget cuts have reduced the number and scope of those projects.
Rebecca Fleming, the new executive officer for Stanislaus County courts, is optimistic that Modesto's project will become reality.
"It has been a very tedious process," Fleming said, "but it's also been very validating for our county."
By having Johnson's committee review all its plans now, Fleming said, it should help the construction project avoid snags in the future.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.