Where and how to rebuild county courthouse complex

Every half century or so, government gets an opportunity to rebuild something that will be functional, or even very good, for about 30 years, then be outdated for the next 20 before rebuilding again.

According to the state, Stanislaus County is due for a new courthouse. The state makes that call because it took control of the court system two years ago and now owns both the 52-year-old courthouse and the Hall of Records, built in 1938 and expanded a decade later. These are two of the three ugliest and most outdated justice buildings imaginable. The third is the county-owned downtown jail on the same block of downtown Modesto.

The court system long ago outgrew the courthouse on 11th Street. It leases additional space for civil courtrooms in the old Modesto City Hall building across 11th Street and in the City Towers building at 10th and H.

So the basic plan — details yet to be determined — is to build new facilities at a projected cost of $277 million. The money would come from bonds backed by increased fines in traffic, civil and criminal cases. Consider it the ultimate in pay-as-you-go (to court) financing.

The key is finding both the place(s) and the plan that will meet the county's long-term needs.

Some options to ponder — and consider yourself warned that collectively they could make your head explode:

Is the current site downtown — the block bordered by H and I, 11th and 12th streets — the best place to rebuild? Instead, imagine retail, restaurant and office space that would better mesh with the Gallo Center for the Arts across 11th Street.

The latter use would involve getting rid of a downtown jail too old, decaying and aesthetically hideous to encourage investment in a ritzy new building next door.

Unfortunately, the money earmarked for the new courthouse doesn't include one dime for a new jail. That burden falls to the county, which is in the same financial commode as virtually every other local government agency these days — laying off employees, and eliminating some services while reducing others.

The county has about $30 million in growth impact fee money it could use to build a new jail, but it comes shackled: It can be used only to expand, not replace, the number of beds. With cutbacks planned for the Honor Farm, the sheriff would first need to replace those beds and 396 more by closing the downtown jail before tapping into the growth funds to expand the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road.

So moving the courts and the jail entirely would take innovative thinking: Orchestrating land swaps involving the state, which owns the courthouse and Hall of Records; the county, which owns the jail and the park on I Street; and private landowners elsewhere downtown while also finding a way to pay for a new jail.

Difficult? Yes, but not impossible.

Tim Fedorchak, the management consultant for Stanislaus County's capital projects division, said his office received numerous calls from developers about the courthouse property Tuesday after The Bee reported the state's decision to rebuild the courthouse. He referred them to state court officials.

Rebuilding on the current site would require tearing down the Hall of Records first and building the new courthouse there. Then the old courthouse would be razed and a new records building would be erected. The problem? Crews would lack construction staging areas, and the county wants its park along I Street left intact.

If the courthouse and Hall of Records were moved, but kept downtown, where would they go?

Again, the downtown jail is the zillion-pound gorilla. The courthouse connects to the county jail via an underground tunnel. Cuffed and chained, defendants shuffle through it on their way to an elevator that takes them to the correct floor in the courthouse.

Half of them must cross the open hallways to get to their courtrooms. Yes, it's great for photo ops — the ol' perp walk — but it's lousy for security. The courts years ago installed loud alarms on the doorways leading to the parking lot between the courthouse and jail because visitors would open them and let their friends in instead of having them pass through the security checkpoint in the lobby.

The Sheriff's Department pays roughly $400,000 annually to move defendants from the Public Safety Center to the courthouse. Moving the courthouse away from the jail would add to that cost if the tunnel route is lost.

Among the other potential sites downtown, there's a city block-sized building that not only is for sale but also has more than 100 parking spaces a half-block away. The Bee's building has come up in conversations, Fedorchak said. One thought, he said, is to transform The Bee's building into a new, more secure criminal court, then renovate the courthouse along 11th Street to handle only civil cases, which don't have the same security issues as criminal court.

Build a courthouse complex at the county center on Hackett Road. The big winner would be the Sheriff's Department because such a move would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the cost of transporting defendants.

The losers in this would include judges, prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, bail bondsmen and everyone else now situated near the jail. They'd all have to drive out to Hackett every day. And moving the courts would damage if not devastate Modesto's downtown lunchtime restaurant business.

Wherever they build it, a sparkling new courthouse with modern security features will be a vast improvement over the 52-year-old dive we have now.

Let's just hope they get it done before it's outdated again.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or