MODESTO — While differences werent resolved, both sides of the Modesto courthouse location debate at least got to express their concerns and ask some questions Tuesday evening.
Modestos City Council and California court officials engaged in a nearly two-hour public discussion about where Stanislaus Countys new $277 million courthouse should be built. While city and court officials have been privately discussing placing the courthouse on 10th Street for 2½ years, Tuesdays meeting was the first time theres been a public meeting on the issue.
A group of prominent community members favors building on I Street instead and wants government officials to answer dozens of questions about the proposed 10th Street land deal.
I Street is our civic and cultural center, and it is the correct place for the courthouse to be built, Marie Gallo told the council. She and other members of a group calling itself Citizens for I Street want the courthouse built at I and 13th streets, two blocks east of the existing courthouse.
Thats the block where The Modesto Bee leases office space.
City and court officials, however, prefer the block at 10th and H streets, which is two blocks west of the existing courthouse.
Tenth Street is the heart of downtown, said Brent Sinclair, the citys director of economic and community development. Sinclair said building the courthouse there conforms with Modestos redevelopment master plan.
More than a dozen speakers weighed in on the issue, including former and current judges, elected officials and community activists.
The only thing everyone agreed on is that a new Stanislaus County courthouse is needed and it should be built in downtown Modesto. Both sides, however, contend their preferred site has to overcome fewer obstacles.
The 10th Street site, for example, includes land from the defunct Modesto Redevelopment Agency. City officials want that agencys land to be given to the city, but Californias Department of Finance must agree to that.
Retired federal judge Frank Damrell warned that getting approval for that land transfer will not be easy because the redevelopment agency has so many outstanding debts. Damrell said waiting for Department of Finance approval could cause serious delays in the 10th Street land deal.
Building on the I Street site, however, could create zoning issues because high-rise buildings are not approved for that site and additional environmental studies might be needed, city and court officials noted.
Pearl Freeman, the senior project manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the 10th Street block has cleared the environmental review process. She said city codes enable high-rise buildings there, which would give architects more options when it comes to designing the courthouse.
The I Street site, by contrast, is not zoned for tall buildings, which could require the 301,000-square-foot, 26-courtroom facility to be more spread out on that block. But Freeman said state buildings like this courthouse do not have to conform to local building codes, so a high-rise building legally could go there.
Some of those who spoke Tuesday night acknowledged having a financial interest in where the courthouse is built.
John Sanders, who owns property on 10th Street, said he prefers that location because that area of downtown is filled with vacant buildings and needs all the help it can get.
Niniv Tamimi, a Modesto developer who owns the block on I Street with a group of investors, argued that shifting the economic center of downtown away from I Street would have serious negative economic repercussions on businesses. He said 53 law firms have offices within two blocks of his site, compared to just 13 around the 10th Street site.
Sandra Lucas, who is on Modestos Planning Commission and works at the courthouse, warned decision makers against listening to those who have money at stake in the deal.
The self-interest of a few vs. the best interest of the many is whats at stake, Lucas said. She favors the 10th Street site because it could stimulate the economy there and alleviate blight.
Other speakers criticized government officials for forging ahead on the courthouse without seeking input from the community.
The public is not being allowed a voice, said Joan Rutschow.
City officials repeated said it is the state thats selecting the courthouse site, but they confirmed they are negotiating to buy all the privately owned land on the 10th Street block. After moving all the utilities off that block, the city plans to sell the land to the state for the courthouse.
City Manager Greg Nyhoff said he expects private negotiations between the city and landowners to be complete by the end of December, and he assured residents that the City Councils final vote to buy that land will be done at a public meeting.
Former Stanislaus County supervisor Ray Simon presented the council a list of more than 40 questions about that land deal. He said those are questions the public needs answered before city officials proceed. Simons top questions concern how much the deal is going to cost Modesto taxpayers.
No answers about costs were provided Tuesday.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report. Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.