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Work starts on new County courthouse
• Opposite the block from Modesto Police headquarters
New county courthouse design
The new Stanislaus County Courthouse will look like this once it's completed in downtown Modesto. The $340.5 million project will replace the old and inadequate courthouse.

Work has started on the new 309,000-square-foot, $340.5 million Stanislaus County courthouse in downtown Modesto.

The new facility, designed with 27 courtrooms, had been shelved for years for lack of funding. In October the state Department of Finance approved the request for the construction contract award, giving the green light to start building. The eight-story project – expected to be completed in fall of 2024 – is going up in the city block bounded by G and H streets between Ninth and Tenth streets. It will replace the aged and cramped facility built in the 1960s.

In a press release, Stanislaus County Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Westbrook said: “We are excited that Stanislaus County will finally have a courthouse worthy of the court’s mission. The new building will reflect the dignity and seriousness of our task —to administer justice for all who enter its doors.”

The California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the state courts, said the county’s present court facilities “are overcrowded, lack security features to current standards, and hinder the court’s efficiency by dispersing services over many locations.”

The new courthouse will allow the county to place all court operations under one roof. Currently the court services are farmed out to five separate facilities, including the small claims court at 300 Starr Avenue in Turlock, and traffic cases at the former roller rink on Floyd Avenue east of Oakdale Road in Modesto. Juvenile court is currently held at the Juvenile Hall facility on Blue Gum Avenue in Modesto. Consolidating these facilities will enable the court to increase efficiency by retiring leases and centralizing operations. The project will improve security by providing enhanced entrance screening, separate hallways for the public, staff, and in-custody defendants, and properly sized holding areas for in-custody defendants.

The project includes space for two future new judgeships and will enable the court to provide basic services currently not possible due to space restrictions, such as a self-help center; appropriately sized public lobby and service counters; a properly sized and equipped jury assembly room and jury deliberation rooms, and rooms for family court mediation and attorney/client interviews, as well as a children’s waiting room.

The 3.5-acre site for the courthouse was selected in May, 2013. The site also includes a portion of the block bounded by H and I Streets and 9th and 10th Streets for parking.

In November 2014, the State Public Works Board approved acquisition of the preferred site. On December 23, escrow closed on the downtown site, completing site acquisition for the new Stanislaus County Courthouse.

As far as the future uses for the old courthouse, county and Modesto city officials are interested in the redevelopment of the old courthouse, which is owned by the county and state are kicking around ideas that include a mixed-use of housing and offices and stores.

Since the state judicial branch took over responsibility for California courthouses in 2002, the branch’s court construction program has completed 31 new courthouse projects so far and another eight projects are in various stages. New courthouses include Madera, Merced, Porterville, Sonora, Stockton, French Camp, Los Banos, Hollister, Mammoth Lakes, San Andreas, Chico, Yreka, San Jose, Pittsburg, Yuba City, Red Bluff, Hanford, Susanville, Long Beach and Banning.

The state will need to decide what to do with the Ceres courthouse. The county was forced in 2008 to turn over the Ceres court building at 2744 Second Street, to the state of California Judicial Council Administrative Office of the Courts. The deal called for the county to pay the state $16,421 annually for maintenance and continue being responsible for earthquake liability for 35 years.

At the time, then Supervisor Jim DeMartini called the forced deal a “lousy deal,” adding “the state just rips off cities and counties every time they can.”

Ceres city officials were hoping to buy the 2,700-square-foot building on a 7,500 square foot lot, which could have been converted to city offices. But the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 forbids counties from deeding buildings over to other government agencies.

County courthouse work
Heavy equipment was clearing the site of the former Turner Hardware store on G Street yesterday in preparation for the new Stanislaus County Courthouse. - photo by Jeff Benziger