Courthouse feasibility study under way, results in two months
April 11, 2014
Consultants with Ross, Drulius, Cusenberry, Architecture Inc. toured the Nevada County Courthouse last week, gathering information for the first phase of Nevada City's courthouse feasibility study.
RDC, a Sonoma-based firm, specializes in planning and designing law enforcement and court facilities. They've been working with the California court system since 1985, with projects in San Francisco, as well as in Napa, Sutter and Glen counties.
The study will assess the feasibility of keeping the courthouse in its current, historic location, rather than constructing a new facility somewhere else.
"The site has promise, but it also has challenges," said Michael Ross, one of the architectural firm's namesakes.
“If something came up that would prevent us from realizing our goal, the whole process would stop in its tracks.”
head of the courthouse committee
Those challenges include floor levels that vary by several feet in some places and outdated security infrastructure. Whereas many modern courthouses use separate hallways for transporting prisoners — prisoners, victims and witnesses all use the same halls to access court rooms in Nevada County.
Given the age of the historical structure, there might also be seismic issues.
At this point in the project, Ross says his architects are comparing structural schematics against their own observations to determine whether the existing facility has enough square footage to accommodate the features that would be added in a remodel.
The state's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) deemed the courthouse "unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient" in 2009. A $108 million rebuild was proposed — but there was no guarantee that the new facility would remain in downtown Nevada City.
In January 2013, the AOC placed the Nevada County Courthouse project on indefinite delay for budgetary reasons.
Advocates say they can save millions of dollars in taxpayer money by renovating the existing facility, rather than building a new one. There are some questions that have to be answered beforehand, however.
First, does the existing ensemble of buildings that make up the Nevada County Courthouse have enough square footage to accommodate the needs of a modern facility? Second, can structural solutions be provided to make renovation cheaper than starting from scratch?
If the architects determine that the answer to both of those questions is "yes," then Nevada City will have to decide whether or not to proceed to the feasibility study's second phase.
That would entail starting the design work for the renovation.
If phase two gets completed, advocates hope it will encourage the state to take the Nevada County Courthouse project off the indefinite delay list and move forward with the renovation.
At that point, court operations would be displaced, forcing officials to find a suitable venue in which to conduct hearings and trials while the renovation takes place.
Another concern is the possibility of a so-called "fatal flaw." Paul Matson, head of the courthouse committee, expressed concerns at a recent meeting of the Nevada City Council that the architects may find a structural problem so expensive to address that it could potentially drive up the cost of renovation to an unacceptable level.
Matson told The Union that so far, no fatal flaw has been identified. Michael Ross concurred, but he also stated that if a fatal flaw is discovered, it will happen later on in the process.
"If something came up that would prevent us from realizing our goal, the whole process would stop in its tracks," Matson said. "We believe that based on the study we did in-house, no fatal flaw will be discovered."
Matson has called keeping the facility downtown one of the most important issues facing Nevada City — but not everyone shares that perspective.
George Boardman, a member of The Union's editorial board, recently wrote a column arguing that building a new facility near the Eric W. Rood Center Administrative Center on Maidu Avenue would present a greater benefit for the majority of Nevada County residents who live outside Nevada City.
Sean Metroka, Nevada County's court executive officer, says that debate is not a factor in the feasibility study.
"What we're trying to do with the study is not to push forward one position or another, but simply to analyze whether it truly is an option to reuse these buildings on this site and save the people of California tens of millions of dollars," Metroka told The Union.
In the long term, there are three possible outcomes. The state may build a new facility, renovate the existing facility or keep the project on indefinite delay — which will effectively mean that courthouse operations continue indefinitely in the current facility, as is.
"It's sort of in a holding state at this point, even though it has very real safety and security and court operational problems," said architect Michael Ross.
In a recent version of Nevada City's strategic plan, dated Sept. 10, 2013, keeping the courthouse downtown is listed as a top objective.
According to that document, recent progress on the feasibility study is significantly behind schedule. Officials had hoped to have both phases of the study completed and submitted to the AOC by March of this year.
To contact staff writer Dave Brooksher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
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