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Los Angeles

Courthouse Does Justice to North County

After being forced for more than a decade to make long drives for legal matters, Antelope Valley residents get a modern facility.

October 14, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County's new $109-million courthouse in Lancaster is a surprising sight -- a four-story mass of gleaming glass and urbanity set on a quiet expanse of Mojave Desert floor, surrounded by Joshua trees and sagebrush.

But like much of north Los Angeles County, this area too may one day be crowded with strip malls, subdivisions and thousands of residents in need of marriage licenses, restraining orders, quitclaim deeds and public defenders.

The 15 courtrooms of the Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse, which open Monday, are a response to the phenomenal growth that has transformed much of this vast region. Court officials say the population of the county's Northern Judicial District -- which stretches from Agua Dulce north to the Kern County line, and from Gorman east to the border of San Bernardino County -- has swelled in 40 years from 50,000 people to about 500,000.

To accommodate the area's expected growth, the 380,000-square-foot building also has six empty, unfinished rooms that could serve as future courtrooms. Judge Steven D. Ogden, the district's supervising judge, said the forward thinking was a necessity.

"I'm sure this place is going to grow like Topsy over the next five years," he said.

The courthouse, named for the county supervisor who represents the area, will replace the Antelope Valley's two current court facilities: the overcrowded, 41-year-old criminal court building in Lancaster, and Palmdale's civil courtrooms, which were opened in 2001 in space the county leased from the city.

The Antonovich courthouse is the last to be built under a troubled county court modernization plan that began in the early 1990s. A 1998 state audit found that the plan, which originally called for eight new courthouses, was plagued by construction delays, wasted money and poor planning. By 1994, money shortages forced officials to focus on only three courthouses -- in Chatsworth, Lancaster and on the Westside near Los Angeles International Airport.

Over the years, the patience of Antelope Valley residents wore thin. For more than a decade before the Palmdale court opened, they had to make long drives south to San Fernando, Van Nuys or Los Angeles to handle even small-claims matters.

Those inconveniences led area residents to grumble about being overlooked by the county decision-makers. But for such locals as Lancaster Vice Mayor Henry Hearns, the handsome new courthouse goes a long way toward making amends.

The building, designed by Mosakowski-Lindsey Associates of Pasadena, features a three-story, cylindrical glass atrium, precast concrete that simulates the reddish blush of Arizona sandstone, and stylized lettering that evokes an era when Raymond Chandler was imagining L.A. County lawbreakers. Inside the foyer, a 94-foot-long mural displays the Antelope Valley in spring, awash in its famously colorful poppies.

"It's simply beautiful," Hearns said. "I think even the people who are going in there who are being judged will appreciate having a place like this. Now, if you're going to go to jail, at least you can go from a decent place of judgment."

Ogden, who has been a judge in the old Lancaster courts since 1989, said he is most impressed with the building's state-of-the-art detention system, which will allow safer movement of offenders than did the old court complex, where inmates were often taken outside to get them from lockup to courtroom.

Ogden said he also likes another new feature: underground parking for judges.

"Now I'll have a cool car at the end of the day in July," he said.

Starting Monday, the old Lancaster court building will be converted into a juvenile justice facility and the Palmdale courtrooms will be turned back over to the city. Two of the five courts will remain open in Palmdale through Dec. 1, according to Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Antonovich.

County officials will dedicate the new court building, at 42011 4th St., on Thursday.

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