Preferred site identified for new Stanislaus County courthouse

05/09/2013 10:36 AM

03/12/2014 3:10 PM

Stanislaus County's new courthouse will be built between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets in downtown Modesto, a state committee has decided.

The 2.75-acre block — where a city of Modesto parking lot and maintenance yard, the Turner Building, Gervasoni's Restaurant and several older structures are located — has been named the "preferred site" by California court officials.

If everything goes as planned, the new courthouse will open there in 2018.

To make that happen, however, Modesto officials are proposing the city first buy all the block's property, enhance the site and then resell it to the state.

That site is cater-cornered from the back of the Gallo Center for the Arts, and it's two blocks from the existing courthouse and Stanislaus County's main jail.

The other downtown location that had been considered for the courthouse, the privately owned block where The Modesto Bee leases office space, has been designated the "secondary site."

The courthouse project's local advisory group will discuss the state's choice May 17 during a closed-door hearing in Modesto.

The site was revealed late Wednesday after a two-day meeting of the state's Court Facilities Working Group's courthouse cost reduction subcommittee, which reviewed the potential costs and quality of both blocks.

For the past two years, state court officials have been evaluating options for where to build a replacement for the 50-year-old courthouse.

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh predicted the new building "will be a catalyst that regenerates downtown."

It will turn 10th Street into "a marquee avenue" — from Modesto Centre Plaza, past the government headquarters at Tenth Street Place and the Gallo Center all the way to the new courthouse — Councilman Dave Cogdill Jr. said.

"It will make downtown more vibrant and attractive," he said.

Modesto officials actively lobbied state court officials to choose that site, which the city partly owns.

To sway that decision, Director of Community & Economic Development Brent Sinclair said the city has offered to buy all the other properties on the block, move all the utility lines that run through the alley there and then "flip" the property to the state.

"The best-case scenario is that we will break even," Sinclair said.

How much the city will have to pay for those properties and what price it will get from the state hasn't been determined. Whether the city will demolish the existing buildings and clean up any environmental problems also is yet to be negotiated.

"Not all the loose ends are tied up," City Manager Greg Nyhoff said. He said he is convinced, however, that building a courthouse on the site "certainly will help revitalize downtown."

Thursday afternoon was the first time the city's proposal to buy out the block was made public. But the city apparently has been privately negotiating the deal for more than two years.

The state originally estimated the new 26-courtroom facility would cost $278.3 million and be eight stories high. It was supposed to open in 2016, but it's already years behind schedule.

Construction has been delayed repeatedly because of state budget problems. The state has authorized only the land purchase in Modesto, not the actual construction.

The building's opening now isn't expected until 2018, according to Rebecca Fleming, Stanislaus County's court executive officer.

Fleming said property negotiations should begin soon, but the courthouse design isn't expected to be finished until 2015. It will take a year for blueprints to be drawn, so construction isn't expected to start until 2016.

"We're just excited to be moving forward," Fleming said. She said the number of stories and square feet in the building have not been decided.

The entire site selection process was done essentially behind closed doors by state court officials. There were no public hearings or opportunities for community comment about where it should be placed.

"Public comments are not built into the formal process," Fleming said.

The land chosen for a new courthouse has been dubbed the Team Modesto site. That's because in 2005, an investment group calling itself Team Modesto proposed to build a seven-story development there on land owned by Modesto's redevelopment agency. That project was supposed to include retail stores, offices and housing, but the region's economy collapsed before it got off the ground.

The redevelopment agency had tried for more than a dozen years to get someone to build on that land, but various proposals fizzled. The redevelopment agency since has dissolved and the city has taken control of its land.

The other major property owner on that block is Greg Reed's G&K Enterprises, which owns the 75-year-old Turner office building at the corner of Ninth and H streets.

Gary Gervasoni operated a restaurant on the Ninth Street side of that block for 37 years. He still owns the land, but in October, he sold the restaurant itself — including its Gervasoni's name — to an employee.

News of the courthouse site's selection didn't spread fast.

Niniv Tamimi, whose development group manages the block leased by The Bee, said Thursday morning he hadn't been told of the state's decision. He declined further comment about the deal.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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