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Plans for new downtown county courthouse moving forward

While state officials tackle a projected $24 billion budget deficit, plans are moving forward to fund as much as $5 billion in courthouse construction statewide.

That includes a $1.18 billion, 71-court facility planned on the King Stahlman Bail Bonds block just north of the Hall of Justice, which opened in early 1996.

The facility, planned on the mostly vacant downtown block on C between Union and State streets, would be the largest new state courthouse in California.

"The courthouse in Los Angeles is bigger, but that's not on the list," said Michael Roddy, San Diego Superior Court executive officer.

Roddy said the Stahlman block, which has some small buildings and a parking lot now, should be perfect for the state's needs.

"By getting the Stahlman (where the business still operates) block we will be able to keep everything operating throughout this process," Roddy said.

The county donated the property several months ago, in lieu of paying millions of dollars in seismic upgrades to the original 45-year-old courthouse will need to keep the complex intact while the latest facility is being built.

The planned court facility -- that would encompass 700,000 square feet and measure 18 to 20 stories tall -- would not only be large enough to replace the rooms in the 1960s vintage courthouse across the street at 220 West Broadway, but would consolidate functions of the Family Court at 1501-1555 Sixth Ave., and the Madge Bradley Court at 1409 Fourth Ave.

Increased court fees and fines -- as per State Senate Bill 1407, approved by the Legislature last year -- would pay for the project.

These funds would be pledged against revenue bonds that are generally much more appealing to investors than general obligation bonds.

The Legislature is supposed to vote on the financing plan sometime this fall.

San Diego's original courthouse, full of asbestos and literally falling apart in places, is on a list of critical projects.

The possible bad news is that depending when the project is actually funded, the legislature could choose to divert the court fees and fines for other uses.

"There have been attempts to divert the money for other purposes, but there is a strong desire to prevent that," Roddy said.

Another possible issue is that while the replacement of the courthouse here is deemed as critical, San Diego isn't the only courthouse project in the state.

Several other courthouses from Los Angeles to Mendocino are also on a critical needs list.

Assuming the project does go forward, Roddy said the big public works development would likely take a year for environmental work, including possible leaking fuel from old storage tanks, followed by engineering and design.

"We would like to break ground in two to three years," Roddy said.

As noted by Teresa Ruano, a spokeswoman with the Administrative Office of the Courts in San Francisco, the project would take about 28 months to construct.

While Lankford & Associates was brought on board to develop the Hall of Justice, a developer is not expected to be part of this process because in Rob Lankford's words, "the job will be done as a straight procurement."

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