State panel approves courthouse at 10th and H streets in Modesto

03/12/2014 3:06 PM

03/12/2014 10:07 PM

Those in favor of putting a new Stanislaus County Courthouse at I and 13th streets in downtown Modesto finally got their say Wednesday, but the state Court Facilities Advisory Committee still voted unanimously to move ahead with putting the building at 10th and H streets.

Advocates for both potential sites spoke passionately over 3 1/2 hours during a hearing in San Francisco. After listening to 11 speakers, the panel went into closed session for an update from staff on property negotiations – information not discussed in public.

After about an hour in closed session, the committee returned to open session and voted without comment.

While nobody debates that Stanislaus County desperately needs a new courthouse – services such as civil and traffic court have been moved to off-site, leased space – where it’s going to go is a bone of contention.

After starting with six potential sites, an advisory group to the Judicial Council selected the top two – 10th and H streets and I and 13th streets.

The group identified the 10th Street site as the preferred site, with I Street as the alternative. But how that selection was made has been a sticking point.

Michael Normoyle, representing “Citizens for I Street,” pointed out that Wednesday’s hearing in San Francisco was the first “noticed public hearing” where the site selection was on the agenda. He said his group only learned of the committee through a story in The Modesto Bee in May, but the judges said they issued a press release about it in November 2010.

Those in favor of the site at 10th and H said it will be a key piece of the city’s efforts to revitalize downtown and will serve to drive more retail and commercial development.

“I Street has been our city’s cultural focus for decades and will continue to be so,” Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said. “Tenth Street has been our governmental and economic priority.”

Those who want to see the courthouse built at 13th and I pointed out that its advantages include proximity to more attorneys, less noise from Highway 99 and freight trains, and better parking.

“A courthouse is for everybody. ... It’s not a means by which we develop retail centers or commercial centers,” said attorney Frank Damrell, a former federal judge who noted the federal court located its facility on I Street. “Tenth Street is generally vacant. Restaurants come and go ... there’s no foot traffic because there’s no reason to be there.”

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager expressed concerns with the 10th Street site, saying it’s a long walk for her attorneys and others who park at her building at I and 12th streets. Some of those attorneys can’t make that walk, and she also worried about others who have been the target of threats from gang members they’re prosecuting.

Normoyle said the city is negotiating with several property owners at the 10th Street site. That’s not the case at the I Street site, which now consists of a single building – where The Bee leases space – and has a single owner, Niniv Tamimi.

Normoyle said Tamimi, who attended the hearing, would offer to include a parcel at 14th and H for parking if I Street is selected.

In his presentation, Brent Sinclair, Modesto’s community and economic director, said there’s parking available for downtown already.

From an urban planning perspective, Sinclair said, “I think it would be great if Modesto ever had a parking problem.”

Representatives of the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and the Stanislaus Superior Court also spoke in favor of the 10th Street site.

“There are rules to the game,” Judge Jack Jacobson said. “I urge the committee to once again follow the process and stay the course.”

Whatever decision the council made, Marsh said, “the city of Modesto will give you our 100 percent support.”

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