Our View: Restart Stanislaus County courthouse decision with public input on site

09/14/2013 5:28 PM

09/14/2013 5:32 PM

The largest public works project in Stanislaus County history, the construction of a new courthouse, has been deliberated entirely behind doors so far, with no opportunity for the public to weigh in on where it should be or whether scarce city money should be spent to get the site that the city wants.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts initiated this marathon of secrecy by keeping all but the most basic information away from all but a select few. We were informed that a new courthouse was planned – and it surely is needed – but nothing about where it would be.

Further evidence of the AOC’s penchant for secrecy was clear when Bee reporter J.N. Sbranti learned that the courts exempted themselves from California Environmental Quality Act, which requires a major environmental review and public comment on large projects such as this.

The city of Modesto has taken up this attitude of secrecy as it persuaded the AOC to favor its preferred site. And more recently city leaders have worked behind closed doors, initially with a private developer, to assemble parcels in the block between Ninth and 10th and G and H streets. Of the 11 parcels on the block, private owners control six; the city, five.

The city’s plan is to buy all of the private properties, prepare the block by moving utility lines and do any cleanup, and sell it to the state. City staff has acknowledged that a best-case scenario would have the city “break even” on the deal.

Based on the city’s recent development history including NSP funding, SCAP and Archway Commons, a best-case expectation is unlikely. And if the city can’t break even, what are city leaders willing to spend to make this deal go through? We don’t know because city leaders won’t say and the city, like the courts, has never held any kind of public forum on the subject.

Aside from the cloaked financial dealings – understandable between private companies but reprehensible with public agencies – there is another key issue: the location.

Modesto’s backbone is not Ninth or 10th streets. McHenry is the longest commercial strip, but downtown Modesto’s cultural and community backbone is I Street.

For more than four decades, I Street has been recognized as the cultural and governmental corridor. From the Modesto Arch, welcoming visitors for more than a century, to the Gallo Center for the Arts, the Stanislaus County Library, the McHenry Mansion and Museum, the federal post office building and bankruptcy court, I Street is Modesto.

Ninth Street is a long, heavily trafficked industrial corridor that is unfriendly to pedestrians. While the city may have a vision for 10th Street to become the city’s premier boulevard, stretching from Tenth Street Place to the Tuolumne River Regional Park, the prospect of that is dim and distant.

Tenth Street has many industrial type uses and a major food processor nearby that the city should not want to lose. The Gateway Parcel of the regional park is an appealing vision, but nowhere close to reality.

I Street is the widest in downtown Modesto, home to the Christmas and Fourth of July parades. It has manageable traffic patterns and a well-defined beginning and end. It is lined with offices, restaurants, government buildings and three park areas.

I Street should be the location of the new county courthouse.

While we have argued for the courthouse to be downtown and for there to be more transparency – any transparency – in this process, we have been reluctant to advocate a specific site because The Bee is the former owner and current occupant of a space in contention for the courthouse.

The Modesto Bee’s parent company, The McClatchy Co., sold the building at I and 14th streets – a full city block with no alleys or encumbrances and a clean environmental report – along with nearly a full city block of parking to a private investment group in 2011. Since then, we have been leasing back roughly 25 percent of the building for our 120 employees. The Bee has no financial stake in the final location of a courthouse. If our location were chosen, we would move our offices.

Others in the community also deserve the opportunity to weigh in on the courthouse location, and it is not too late for that.

Finally, the courthouse is a state project. The city should focus on providing public safety and quality-of-life services to the community – police, fire, parks and neighborhoods. It should not be involved in building development and real estate speculation and it surely should not do those things in secret, without being accountable to its residents.

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