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Plan for new courthouse in downtown L.A. under fire

August 17, 2012 |  6:41 pm

A complex plan to build a new federal courthouse and federal office building in downtown Los Angeles came under fire Friday, as two congressmen argued the proposal lacked justification and wouldn’t work financially.

Under the plan proposed by the U.S. General Services Administration, two new buildings would be built at a large vacant lot on 1st Street, between Hill Street and Broadway. Part of the project would be funded by a private developer, which in return would take over an existing federal courthouse on Spring Street.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), called the proposal a “sham” at a hearing Friday in Los Angeles and said the judiciary would not need more space if its judges shared courtrooms more efficiently. Denham, chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee, also expressed doubts that the GSA could find a developer willing to invest in the project.

“I get it, I know these judges would love to have a much bigger, palatial courtroom with lots of extra room and big conference rooms,” Denham said. “The question is, can we afford it?”

He was joined by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who also criticized the GSA’s plan. “It’s outrageous that judges insist upon having their own courtrooms when they don’t use them, when they spend much of the time vacant,” Shuster said.

There are currently two federal courthouses downtown: the Spring Street courthouse, built in 1938, and the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, which opened in the early 1990s.

In 2000, the GSA first requested funding for a new downtown courthouse, citing overcapacity and security problems involved in transporting prisoners to the Spring Street court. Congress appropriated $400 million for a 41-courtroom building on 1st Street, but the construction suffered repeated delays and cost increases and was ultimately canceled in 2006.

Last year, the GSA announced a revised plan for a smaller, 24-courtroom facility at the same site. The agency also said it would seek to exchange the existing Spring Street courthouse with a “private-sector partner” who would build a second building at the 1st Street lot for other federal offices.

GSA officials say the new proposal would allow them to consolidate federal employees into a central campus and dispose of an unneeded asset, while helping the ongoing revitalization efforts in the Civic Center.

“This plan would save millions in tax dollars and ensure the North Spring Street courthouse does not become another excess property on the government’s books,” said Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, in a recent statement. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles) and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have voiced support for the new plan as well, along with U.S. Judge Margaret Morrow.

Denham, however, was skeptical the project would pencil out. At the hearing Friday he quizzed Kevin Richards, the acting GSA commissioner for the region,  on downtown real estate prices and vacancy rates. Richards repeatedly answered that the GSA was still conducting due diligence on parts of the deal. Richards also said that the GSA had not yet met with private developers to discuss the exchange of the Spring Street courthouse.

“You don’t put a proposal out there without having a couple developers who can at least justify the numbers,” Denham said. “We’ve done some basic investigation, just going online and seeing what local rental rates are and construction rates are, and they don’t add up.”

Construction on the smaller courthouse is expected to begin later this year, Richards said, but the GSA plans to spend six to eight months studying the second piece of the project before moving forward on the exchange.

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--Sam Allen

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