Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is proposing a multimillion-dollar plan to renovate and reopen the old Hall of Justice building in downtown's Civic Center, a move that would allow him to relocate his office from the department's quiet hillside compound in Monterey Park to Los Angeles' political hub.
Saying that he wants to be closer to the governmental action, Baca and his staff have spent weeks preparing a proposal to fix up the dilapidated building, which was abandoned in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake.
"If I'm downtown, I'm at easy access to the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney and the judges," Baca said. "I don't want them to see me as being detached."
Baca said he believes that it will cost up to $100 million to overhaul the 15-story granite building that once housed the county criminal courts, a jail and the offices of the district attorney, coroner and sheriff.
Baca said he hopes to cover about 80% of the cost with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as other federal and state sources. The rest of the money, Baca says, will need to be raised through a countywide bond measure. His plan must be approved by the Board of Supervisors, which recently asked county staff to figure out what it would take to repair the building.
"If I could find financing for up to $70 million, we would bond finance the remaining $20 million to $30 million," Baca said. "I think it's a win-win for everyone. My hope is we can find a way to do it with minimal county money.
"If the money package is too difficult, then I will accept whatever the Board of Supervisors decides," he said. "But let it not be for the absence of trying that we didn't do it."
The structure--which was built at Temple Street and Broadway in 1925--has a colorful past. Charles Manson was housed in the jail and was tried in an eighth-floor courtroom. Mickey Cohen served six months there for bookmaking in 1942, and Robert Mitchum did time on a 1949 marijuana possession charge.
Marilyn Monroe was autopsied in the coroner's office--located on the first floor of the structure--after her death in 1962. And in 1968, Sirhan Sirhan was tried for the assassination of Robert Kennedy in a specially designed courtroom a few feet from his cell.
Baca said he worked in the building off and on since joining the department in 1965. He fondly remembers watching prosecutors in action in the wood-paneled courtrooms.
"In those days the prosecutors did not play around," he said. "This thing with O.J. [Simpson] and all the smiles and friendliness. In those days, they were mad-dog determined. . . . Those were the glory days."
Baca said he recalls the time stunt rider Evel Knievel was sentenced to the county lockup on assault charges.
"At one time when he got released, there were about 20 other inmates getting released," Baca said. "He ordered 20 limos. There were limos backed up down the street."
But as the building deteriorated with age, the county started looking for new sites for the sheriff's operations. In 1993, then-Sheriff Sherman Block relocated the department headquarters from the lower floors at the Hall of Justice to the Ameron building in Monterey Park. The Civic Center building was red-tagged a year after the Northridge earthquake.
Even before the temblor, county officials estimated that it would cost $80 million to overhaul the structure, which needs new wiring and plumbing, as well as earthquake reinforcements. Some have suggested that it would be easier to just tear it down.
However, Baca said he is determined to repair the relic. "The building has character," he said. "It could be beautiful again."
Under Baca's plan, the building would be used for office space by a variety of law enforcement agencies. He also intends to reopen the jail to house federal inmates, a move he hopes would raise money for the county.
He also said he plans to relocate the department's homicide detectives--who now work out of a department facility in Whittier--to the Civic Center. Meanwhile, Baca said he would keep the Monterey Park facility.
Recently, the Board of Supervisors expressed interest in saving the old building. However, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he hopes to do so at little cost to the county. Although he said he would give Baca's plan careful review, he said he was thinking more in terms of having a private developer take on the project.
"We want to fix it up," Yaroslavsky said. "But I don't see the county spending money to refurbish that building for the purpose of moving one department from one headquarters to another."
Times researcher Peg Eby-Jager contributed to this story.