Some prominent community leaders want new courthouse on I Street, not 10th Street

10/05/2013 6:00 PM

10/07/2013 8:24 AM

Some powerful community leaders are vowing to fight to keep Stanislaus County’s courthouse on I Street, which they consider the civic and cultural center of Modesto.

They’re blasting state and city officials for cutting the public out of the decision-making process, and they contend shifting the courthouse to 10th Street would be a major mistake.

Modesto philanthropist Marie Gallo, former county Supervisor Ray Simon and retired federal Judge Frank Damrell want the proposed $277million courthouse to be built at I and 13th streets, a block away from the current courthouse.

“A building of that magnitude should be in the heart of town, and that’s I Street,” Gallo stressed. She was the driving force behind creating and funding the Gallo Center for the Arts, which also is on I Street. “Something this big should not be railroaded into a location only a few people want.”

But California court officials – with the backing of Modesto’s City Council – have decided the massive project should be on 10th Street between H and G streets. Despite never having held a public vote on the matter, the city is proceeding with plans to buy up that entire block for the courthouse.

As currently planned, the 301,464-square-foot courthouse – the most expensive public building in Stanislaus County history – would be paid for with state funds and opened in 2019.

“The biggest complaint I have is that the public isn’t being allowed a voice in where the most important building in our community will be built,” Gallo said. “There needs to be total transparency. We know nothing about how they arrived at their conclusion on where to build.”

No public meetings have been held concerning where the new courthouse should go, and government officials have not revealed details regarding how potential sites were rated or about the 10th Street location’s environmental issues or expected costs.

“Why is this being kept all hush-hush from the general public?” Gallo asked. “If things have to be so hidden and secretive, there’s something wrong.”

Closed-door talks

Modesto council members and city staff have been negotiating behind closed doors to buy property on that 10th Street site from six private landowners. The city and the now-defunct Modesto Redevelopment Agency own about one-third of that block. Once the entire block is acquired, the city intends to move all the utilities – including water, sewer, gas, electric and TV cables – off the site, close the alley there and resell the whole thing to the state.

How much that could cost the city and where the funds would come from have not been announced.

“The people of Modesto have to have a voice in this,” said Gallo, whose extended family owns E.&J. Gallo Winery. “This town is our home.”

Marie Gallo wants the courthouse be built on I Street where The Modesto Bee currently leases office space. The newspaper sold that property to a private investment group 2½ years ago and no longer has a financial interest in the block. The large building on that site is mostly empty, and the property is for sale.

“If you build the courthouse there, the whole area will come back to life. It will be like a magnet because it will generate so much activity,” said Gallo, who assures she has no ulterior motive for wanting the courthouse there. “My goal is to make downtown vibrant and economically successful.”

Gallo says she wants Modesto’s I Street to regain its vitality, noting how “this grand street” is lined with many important cultural and civic buildings – the library, performing arts center, legal offices and historic structures including the McHenry Museum, McHenry Mansion and Modesto Arch.

Putting the new courthouse on The Bee block facing I Street “is so clearly the right thing to do,” Gallo said.

State court officials, who work for the Administrative Office of the Courts, named The Bee site as their second-favorite location for the courthouse. They’ve designated it as an acceptable alternate should the deal with the city for the 10th Street block not work out.

“They need to let the public in on all the facts, including the costs of both sites,” said Ray Simon, who was a Stanislaus County supervisor for 32 years before stepping down in 2006. “We want a full public hearing on the site selection.”

Simon said the City Council “seems to be the driving force” promoting the 10th Street site, even though placing the courthouse there hasn’t been voted on or discussed in public. He doesn’t want to jeopardize state funding for the courthouse, but if there’s time, Simon wants both the I Street and 10th Street sites re-examined.

State court officials “need to understand there are two sides to this story,” explained Damrell, who was a prominent Modesto attorney before becoming a federal judge. Damrell also is Marie Gallo’s brother. He said community members need to “stand up and be counted” about where the courthouse should go.

“It would be very unfortunate if they moved the courthouse away from the cultural centerpiece of Modesto’s history,” Damrell said. “This is a big moment for the city of Modesto.”

Defending the process

Mayor Garrad Marsh agrees the courthouse is an important piece of Modesto, but he is convinced it is better suited to 10th Street, which he called the downtown’s “major office and business street.”

Marsh noted how many civic buildings are on 10th, including Modesto Centre Plaza, the county and city offices in Tenth Street Place, the Gallo Center for the Arts and Modesto’s police headquarters.

City officials have been lobbying for the 10th Street courthouse site for 2½ years, even though they’ve never publicly discussed the deal they’re trying to make with the state.

Now that high-profile community members are voicing objection to the 10th Street site, Marsh said he plans to allow public discussion on the issue during an informational session tentatively scheduled for the City Council’s Oct.22 meeting.

That’s a victory for opponents, because city officials had not planned to discuss the courthouse until after they had concluded land purchase negotiations for the block. The formal vote on the negotiated price was to be done in public, but the public was supposed to wait until then to comment about the deal.

The only time any aspect of the new courthouse has appeared on a public agenda was last month, when the City Council voted to pay Modesto developer Paul Draper’s Centerra Capital a commission for “consulting” on the sale of the 10th Street property to the state. Draper withdrew from that contract after questions were raised about whether he could legally broker the land deal without having a real estate license.

The city hasn’t announced what it is doing to replace Draper, though the council is scheduled to discuss the courthouse deal in closed session again Tuesday.

Marsh disagreed with the contention the city has been too secretive about the deal or acted without the community’s consent.

“There’s nothing about our plan for 10th Street that hasn’t been open and publicly talked about,” he said.

The mayor said the city’s vision for developing 10th Street was shared at numerous public forums nearly a decade ago. Those forums took place before the state started looking for a new courthouse site, and the mayor acknowledged that moving the courthouse to 10th Street wasn’t specifically discussed.

Building such a high-rise structure there, however, was addressed during those forums, Marsh said. City zoning codes subsequently were written to allow 10-story buildings on that street without requiring additional lengthy environmental reviews.

Preliminary plans for the proposed courthouse show it being about eight stories high with 26 courtrooms.

“Selection of this courthouse site fits our vision for downtown,” said Marsh, noting that the city had preapproved “that style of land use” for 10th Street. “The courthouse meets our form-based codes.”

The Bee site, in contrast, would require a zoning variance and a time-consuming environmental review process before the city would allow a high-rise building there, according to Marsh. He said increased noise and traffic there could negatively affect the McHenry Museum across the street.

Like Marie Gallo, the mayor contends that the new courthouse will stimulate downtown, but he thinks it will have more impact on 10th Street than on I Street.

“The economic value to the city will be much greater (on the 10th and H block) because there are so many poorly utilized sites around that block,” said Marsh, noting how the blocks surrounding The Bee are in better economic shape.

The mayor rejected Simon’s claim that city officials have been the driving force behind the move to 10th Street. “The Administrative Office of the Courts runs this site selection. It’s not the city,” Marsh said. “We’re not trying to get public opinion one way or another.”

The mayor confirmed, however, that city officials have helped the 10th Street site progress by negotiating to buy all the land on that block and moving the utilities off it before reselling to the state. There’s been speculation such a land deal could lose the city money, while private landowners on that block could end up receiving more than their land is worth.

“We don’t know we’re going to subsidize (the cost of the land),” Marsh said. “I would not personally vote to subsidize the cost of the thing, and I’m not alone.”

Simon said he looks forward to the Oct.22 public discussion on the courthouse deal because he has concerns about the city’s involvement. Simon sent The Bee a list of issues that should be addressed. That list includes questions about how much moving all the utilities off that 10th Street block could cost the city. One of the city-owned parcels on the block has a vehicle maintenance garage, and the cost of relocating it is something Simon wants addressed publicly.

At one point in the site selection process, state officials said they intended to acquire the 60-space city-owned parking lot near Ninth and I streets to serve the courthouse on 10th Street. Simon wants the appraised value of that site disclosed, along with an explanation of how much the city would charge the state to buy it.

Marsh expressed concern about what impact a protracted debate about the courthouse deal might have on the state’s commitment to fund the project.

“There’s a fairly tight timeline” to complete the land purchase, he said. “A battle would jeopardize our ability to get a new courthouse.”

The exact time and format for the public meeting about the courthouse had not been announced as of Friday.

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