Work underway on new county courthouse

The new San Joaquin County Courthouse, designed by Seattle-based architecture firm, NBBJ, will take about
two years to complete at a cost of about $207 million.

Construction project expected to be biggest since prison hospital; contractor looking for local firms

Business Journal writer

STOCKTON – Stockton’s downtown skyline will see a big change during the next two years. Work has finally begun on the new San Joaquin County Courthouse. While the construction will result in a new landmark 13-story edifice, it will also mark the end of Stockton’s central plaza in Hunter Square.

“We have been working on this since 2007,” said Robin Appel, San Joaquin County Super Court trial judge and chair of the facilities committee in charge of overseeing the project.

Work on moving utilities has required the closing of Hunter Square Plaza, the one-acre site of the new building and current location of a small parking lot and a dry fountain outside the current courthouse. The new 306,000-square-foot building will replace a 1960s era structure that recently has been as well known for security problems and a dungeon-like jury room as it has for the courts’ decisions made inside its walls.

“We had hoped to be in the building by 2014, but there have been delays,” said Appel. “We have had some security lapses with a defendant nearly escaping and a judge was attacked. The new building will help with these issues.”

Getting to this point has been a challenge. Originally, the new building plans included 30 courtrooms and had a cost of $262 million. In the ensuing years, the plans have been scaled back to 28 finished courtrooms and will now have a price tag pegged at approximately $207 million.

“It took a long time to acquire the land and the funding,” said Appel. “The plans are now for 28 courtrooms with two more that can be finished later.”

Those plan changes had to be incorporated into the design of the building which has also affected the timeline.

“It (the budget) has kind of been a constantly moving target making us refine the design,” said Ev Ruffcorn, lead designer on the project for architecture firm NBBJ. “It affects lots of things. It hasn’t changed the overall functions of the building, but it affects the interior and exterior materials and landscaping.”

The funding for the new courthouse was authorized through state Senate Bill 1732 which allowed the sale of bonds and use of fees to pay for the new construction.

“There is no general fund money being used for this,” Appel said.

The most immediate change downtown visitors will notice is that Hunter Square has been closed and the entrance to the current courthouse has been relocated.

Turner Construction is the main company overseeing the project. During the first phase utilities will be removed from the area and two buildings will be demolished. Turner Construction, which is involved with numerous regional public works projects including the new arena in Sacramento, is currently taking bids for the main construction phase.

That portion of the project is expected to begin in late spring.

“We hope to have a physical ground breaking in May,” said Appel. “That is when the main construction will begin. We hope to be in the building by the end of 2016.”

The construction project will be a major boost to local industry. The project will be one of the largest non-road efforts in either San Joaquin or Stanislaus counties.

At its peak, officials expect to see 300-400 workers on the site at a given time.

“With housing not taking off yet this kind of work is a big Band Aid,” said Executive Director of the Stockton Builders Exchange Mike Self.

He said that projects such as the courthouse can provide a big stimulus to area businesses beyond building contractors.

Where road work often has an effect on a limited number of contractors, projects like the courthouse can impact a more diverse collection of companies.

“This affects a wide variety of trades,” said Self. ”Concrete, glass, electrical, they are all impacted on a project like this.”

Prior to the courthouse, the largest area project was the $800 million state prison hospital. With work on that project coming to completion, the timing for the new courthouse is welcomed.

Self said that until the housing market picks up, projects like these are a big part of what is keeping area companies afloat.

“The number of companies has reduced significantly during the crash. It never hurts to have this kind of work,” said Self.

Making sure that local companies can get in on that work is a big part of project. While Turner Construction is wary of publicizing target percentages for local company involvement for fear of affecting the prices of bids on the project, local officials would like to see a large percentage of the workers on the project come from the local area.

Turner has been involved with local trades and unions to seek their involvement.

“I love the fact that they are hiring locally and involving the area trades,” said Self. “I will feel better when housing construction starts happening again, but these kinds of projects are a big help to the area.”


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