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Time almost up for deciding courthouse fate

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Friday June 01, 2001

Options for building a new courthouse in Berkeley are practically nil, Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz said Thursday. 

Kamlarz and City Manager Weldon Rucker met with county officials Wednesday to try once more to push for time to explore building a new county courthouse somewhere in Berkeley. But time seems to have just about run out, Kamlarz said.  

The county is ready to remodel the building at 2120 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, making it earthquake safe, more secure, improving the ventilation and bringing it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Assistant County Administrator Dona Linton. Court representatives are pushing the county to have the building ready by the end of 2003.  

Linton said that as soon as the county supervisors approve a resolution that will be before them on Tuesday, the county can begin to develop the project. 

“We have to move forward right away,” she said Thursday. 

Kamlarz, on the other hand, said he thought the city had until June 30 to convince the county to evaluate new sites. He said even if a site were found, he doubted the city could come up with the funds for a project of this magnitude. It would take a ballot measure to raise the funds, he said. Costs for a new building have been variously estimated at $20 to $65 million. 

Building a new Alameda County Courthouse in Berkeley has been in the eye of a political firestorm ever since the courts showed interest in the project more than a decade ago. 

City Council factions fought over different sites and community organizations took sides as well. Among the locations rejected was a site near Addison Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Objections included the removal of affordable housing units and a landmarked building.  

Another location considered was the “Hinks” parking garage, located next to the downtown library. The owner reportedly didn’t want to sell the property and downtown businesses objected to the location. 

Other sites considered and rejected included the Ashby BART station and the North Berkeley BART station.  

More recently the Pacific Gas & Electric building on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Center Street has been under consideration. A PG&E spokesperson said it is for sale. Old City Hall, where the school administration is currently located, has also been considered. 

Meanwhile the county has redirected funds it once had set aside for Berkeley to a new courthouse it plans to build in Dublin. 

Only $3 million remains. It will be spent on the remodeling, Linton said. 

Part of the Civic Center planning process that included the new Public Safety Building was an Environmental Impact Report. Open space where the county court now sits was part of that plan and considered in the approval of the EIR, a document mandated in certain instances by the California Environmental Quality Act. Remodeling rather than razing the courthouse “may be a violation of the civic center EIR,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring, underscoring the importance of keeping a court building and court functions in the city. 

Linton said any question of problems with the EIR will have to be addressed by the city and not the county. 

If the city is obligated to accept the courthouse where it stands, Spring said the county ought to hire a consultant to design the building facade to be compatible with the historic Old City Hall to the south and the new Public Safety Building to the North.  

Mayor Shirley Dean agreed. 

“When we sited the Public Safety Building (next to the courthouse), we did not plan on that old building being there,” said the mayor, who has participated in many of the meetings with county officials. 

While tearing the building down is now out of the question, Linton said redoing the facade is part of the plan.  

“The county is in the position to call the shots,” Spring said.