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Construction plans for downtown L.A. federal courthouse announced

Officials say the stalled project, which would fill a gaping hole in the Civic Center, can move forward with already appropriated funds. But a GOP congressman from the Central Valley plans a hearing.

January 20, 2012|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington -- The long-stalled new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles will finally move forward, Washington officials announced Thursday, despite scrutiny from congressional Republicans looking for ways to cut the federal budget deficit.

The roughly $400-million project at 1st Street and Broadway, planned for more than a decade, would replace the Depression-era federal courthouse on Spring Street, which officials say has security and asbestos problems.

It would also fill an immense hole: The Junipero Serra State Office Building, considered seismically weak after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, was demolished in 2007, leaving a gaping cavity and a rainy-season pond occasionally inhabited by ducks.

The head of the U.S. General Services Administration, Martha Johnson, alerted members of Congress in a letter that the agency "intends to award a contract" to construct the new courthouse "to address the court's urgent housing and security needs in Los Angeles … with the funds previously appropriated to the project.''

Construction is likely to begin in the last quarter of 2012, a GSA spokesman said. Plans call for the courthouse to be ready for occupancy no later than March 2016.

Los Angeles officials, representatives and businesspeople were ecstatic.

"Fabulous! That's wonderful news! That's terrific!" said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn. "It's very welcome news because having a large hole in the ground right in the middle of the Civic Center of the second-largest city in the country has never been ideal.... It will breathe new life into that neighborhood."

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), who is among a group of California lawmakers championing the courthouse, said she was thrilled.

"This project will give an immediate, major boost to Los Angeles' economy, and we expect the courthouse to create thousands of new jobs in the construction industry and related businesses,'' she said.

But the proposed courthouse has been controversial of late. Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Atwater in the San Joaquin Valley, introduced legislation last year to put the site up for sale at an estimated price of $25 million. That measure passed a House committee — and divided the California congressional delegation.

On Thursday, Denham called the courthouse "unnecessary" and a "perfect example of runaway government spending."

He contends that the project was based on a projected increase in judges that has not occurred. Courthouse supporters dispute that.

"Four hundred million dollars of taxpayer money is about to be wasted on a project that is not needed to house judges that do not exist," he said.

Denham, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees public buildings, "fully intends to hold an oversight hearing where GSA will be invited to testify and where he will demand accountability on this issue," an aide said.

After the courthouse's projected cost ballooned to $1.1-billion in 2008, the design was scaled back. At one point, the project had included 54 courtrooms. Current plans call for a 600,000-square-foot facility with 24 courtrooms and 32 judges' chambers.

The GSA said that about $35 million has been spent on the land and courthouse design. The GOP-controlled House would be likely to oppose further appropriations.

But if, as the GSA contends, it can build the courthouse with money that has already been appropriated, it would not need to return to Congress.

Gerry Hertzberg, policy director for Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, called the GSA decision "a great victory for downtown."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa thanked the Obama administration, saying the project would improve public safety, revitalize the Civic Center and "create thousands of much needed construction jobs."

City Councilwoman Jan Perry also praised the decision. "The best part is that it will bring new jobs, and that's the way to pull a city out of a recession and into a recovery," she said.

Both California senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also support the project.

Johnson, the GSA administrator, said the agency is considering options for the existing federal courthouse at 312 North Spring St. Officials have talked about renovating it to house executive branch agencies now in leased facilities, or perhaps selling it.

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, praised Roybal-Allard's persistence.

"Nothing happens in Washington, D.C., without a champion," he said, "and Lucille has been that champion."

richard.simon@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II, Stephen Ceasar and Jean Merl in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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