Modesto courthouse site battle lines drawn

10/19/2013 6:49 PM

10/19/2013 10:38 PM

The battle over where Stanislaus County’s new courthouse should be built is heating up. With the future look of downtown Modesto and millions of state dollars at stake, both sides seem to be digging in for a fight.

Things could come to a head Tuesday at Modesto’s City Council meeting, when the courthouse project will be publicly discussed for the first time.

The dispute over where the new $277 million courthouse should go is pitting Modesto and state court officials who want to build on 10th Street against a group of prominent Modesto residents who want the courts to stay on I Street.

The owners of the I Street property and the 10th Street properties also are lobbying hard for the lucrative deal.

The courthouse site selection process began more than 21/2 years ago, but virtually every aspect of it has been done behind closed doors without public hearings. The state Administrative Office of the Courts plans to buy an entire block of downtown Modesto, and last May, it announced it wants the land between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets.

About one-third of that block is owned by the city of Modesto and its former redevelopment agency. City officials advocated for the courthouse to be built there. To sway state decision makers, they offered to have the city buy all of the privately owned parcels on that block, abandon the city-owned alley there, relocate all the utilities lines off the site and then resell the block to the state.

There’s been no public discussion on that plan. All of the City Council meetings on the topic have been in closed session.

That’s caused concern by a community group, which has started calling itself Citizens for I Street. The group – led by Marie Gallo, Ray Simon and Frank Damrell – wants the courthouse built at 13th and I streets, just up the street from the existing courthouse.

That’s the block where The Modesto Bee leases office space, though the newspaper no longer owns the property.

Simon, a former longtime member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, said his group wants city officials to provide more information about the proposed 10th Street land deal, including how much it would cost Modesto taxpayers.

Among those who have signed on to the Citizens for I Street are former City Council members Carol Whiteside, Kenni Freidman and Frank Murratore, Modesto Irrigation District Director Paul Warda, Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, and former supervisors Jeff Grover, Nick Blom, Paul Caruso and Sal Cannella.

Also in the group are former judges Frank Damrell, Jack Griffin, Glenn Ritchey and Terry Cole, along with members of prominent Modesto families such as Marie Gallo, Ann Veneman, Norma Foster Maddy, Kate Lucas Nygard and Dianne Gagos. Numerous business owners, attorneys and labor union members also are involved.

“We want a public hearing where we can ask questions about the courthouse,” Simon said.

What they’re going to get Tuesday evening is “an information presentation on the Vision for Tenth Street” by members of Modesto’s planning staff. According to the City Council agenda, the staff will explain the city’s “redevelopment master plan for Tenth Street,” which was initiated in 2004 and took three years to craft.

The word “courthouse” does not appear anywhere on the agenda, but Mayor Garrad Marsh assured there will be time after the presentation for the public to ask questions and get answers. Each speaker will be allowed up to five minutes.

Marsh said the 10th Street block has been the subject of numerous public hearings over the years because there once were plans to construct large mixed-use buildings there. But that was before the 2007 recession hit, and Marsh acknowledged that putting the courthouse on 10th Street wasn’t part of those discussions.

“We always thought the courthouse would be rebuilt on the existing site (on I Street between 11th and 12th streets),” Marsh explained. The mayor said he was told that plan was nixed because judges there didn’t want to deal with all the noise and inconvenience of construction for the three or four years it would take to rebuild.

Marsh said the city’s involvement in the courthouse land deal is to “help it along,” but he assured he was not in favor of the city subsidizing the state’s costs. He would not reveal how much the city’s property is worth or what it is willing to sell that land for.

The mayor said that whether the city or the state would end up paying to move the utilities has not been decided. And whether the city would demolish all the buildings on the block before the state takes over “is part of the discussion.”

“We’re still negotiating. That’s all I can say at this point,” Marsh said. “We’ll disclose things when the negotiations are completed.”

That may not satisfy the Citizens for I Street, and it doesn’t make the owner of the property at 13th and I streets happy. “I don’t like the city of Modesto spending taxpayer money and staff time on a state project,” said Niniv Tamimi, a Modesto developer. He owns the block between I and H and 13th and 14th streets with an investment group that includes Craig Mangano from Visalia.

That’s the so-called Bee site, which the state said is its second choice for where to build the courthouse. That’s also where the Citizens for I Street and Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager want it built.

If the courthouse ends up on that I Street block, Tamimi announced this week that he will build a new 35,000-square-foot office building for The Bee to lease near 14th and H streets. He said that $6 million privately financed building could be finished within two years, well before the state plans to start construction on the courthouse.

Tamimi and The Bee have a 10-year office lease agreement that began in spring 2011 when the newspaper sold its property. The Bee’s publisher, Eric Johnston, confirmed his company wants to keep its 100 employees in downtown Modesto and would lease the building Tamimi plans.

Tamimi contends constructing the courthouse on I Street and the office building on H Street would strengthen downtown Modesto’s economy. He said it particularly would bolster the nearby retail Shops at Lincoln School, where Save Mart closed its store for good on Saturday.

Tamimi and Mangano were the initial developers and currently are part owners of the 89,000-square-foot office building and 710-space parking garage at 12th and I streets, where the U.S. Bankruptcy Court is located. That complex is between the existing courthouse and The Bee block.

Tuesday’s City Council meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m., and the courthouse issue is the 14th item on the agenda.

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