Price of federal courthouse soars

Costs for the planned downtown L.A. facility reach $1.1 billion.

September 13, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Costs for a much-touted federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles have tripled to $1.1 billion, according to an audit that said the grand plans might need to be scaled back dramatically.

The audit, released this month by the General Accounting Office, raises questions about the elaborate courthouse federal judges want built -- a landmark building that Los Angeles officials hoped would be part of the revitalization of the tired civic center area.

The proposed courthouse, the largest in the nation, would rise at the corner of Broadway and 1st Street on a vacant lot that until recently housed a long-shuttered state building.

That building was demolished last year amid hopes the project would finally move forward. And at the time, federal officials said they hoped to begin construction in 2009.

But the audit said the current costs are far too much and that other alternatives must be considered. Right now, the federal government has about $366 million set aside for the project -- only a third of what's needed.

The federal judiciary has considered a new Los Angeles court a priority for more than a decade.

A 1996 judiciary plan concluded that the Spring Street courthouse, which opened in 1938, was obsolete and had poor security -- an issue that became even more pressing after 9/11, when security around federal buildings increased dramatically.

According to the report, almost half of the courtrooms in the Spring Street building do not meet the judiciary's standards for size or security, and prisoner passageways in the building are not used because they are considered too dangerous or inefficient.

Originally, Congress authorized a 41-courtroom building, and plans for the federal courthouse called for "a shining example of sustainable design innovation" that would blend "environmentally progressive public spaces with traditional symbols of American courthouse design," according to the project's architect, Perkins and Will.

But as downtown boomed and the scope of the project swelled to a 54-courtroom facility, the project suffered a series of delays and cost escalations. About $33 million has been spent so far on the design of the project and acquisition of the site, the former Junipero Serra State Office Building.

The report suggests options for resolving the courthouse project.

They include building a smaller-scale courthouse on the former state site and adding courtrooms to another downtown U.S. district courthouse, the Roybal Federal Building; renovating existing facilities; and restarting the planning process altogether.

Because current cost estimates exceed the amounts authorized and appropriated, Congress will need to approve any plan that moves forward.

While the General Accounting Office report does not take a position on any of the options, it does indicate that there are significant challenges to any plan -- including the federal judges, who oppose some of the options for solving the court's space issues.

U.S. District Judge George H. King said he couldn't comment on the report or the proposed alternatives. Calls to several other federal judges Friday afternoon were not returned.

"It is clear that the current process is deadlocked," the report states.

Although much of downtown has undergone a transformative building and renovation boom over the last nine years, the area around the Civic Center has been a work in progress.

New headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department are rising at the corner of 1st and Spring streets. But another large-scale development in the area, the $2-billion Grand Avenue project, has suffered delays amid the contracting capital market. The developer of that private-public development has postponed the start of construction until Feb. 15 and could suffer financial penalties if delays stretch any further.

A new federal courthouse, said Carol Schatz, head of the Central City Assn., a business advocacy group, would be "a nice addition to downtown," a way to deepen the mix of government buildings in the area.

But, she added, "we sure haven't been counting on it. It was something we knew was speculative."



Times staff writer Carol J. Williams contributed to this report.

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