How safe and functional is the current downtown courthouse?

When the courthouse was built between 1909 and 1914, the county had one-third its current population, and it was long before modern building code standards for earthquakes were in place. A century’s worth of public use combined with increased demands from today’s much larger population of nearly 750,000 county residents has created both serious safety problems and major functional difficulties that must be resolved.
What are the serious safety problems?

For one, the downtown courthouse doesn’t meet current seismic codes. Its unreinforced masonry walls mean the courthouse has a safety ranking of “poor.” Limitations of space and century-old design also create regular security concerns for court personnel, crime victims, witnesses and the general public because criminal defendants can’t always be kept separate in public pathways.

What are the major functional difficulties?

The courthouse lacks secured vehicle pick-up and drop-off areas for those in custody. The building also doesn’t meet other state and federal codes for modern courthouses. Courtrooms in the downtown courthouse are not adequately designed to meet current demands for efficiency and services. Also, the required security screening equipment and inadequate lobby size regularly create long lines that delay entry into the building. And the building doesn’t meet current ADA standards due to lack of entry ramps and elevators.

Why is a safe and functional courthouse important?

The courthouse is an essential home for a community’s daily judicial operations and must be functional even in the case of a major catastrophe like an earthquake. The courthouse also is one of the few community spaces that the public is compelled to enter—for everything from jury duty to fulfilling legal obligations by paying a parking ticket or serving as a trial witness. While every building should have the highest safety standards, it’s especially important when you’re talking about a structure where people are required by law to enter. In addition, the state of Oregon requires the county to provide facilities for the Court to operate.

What’s been done recently to provide a new courthouse?

There has been a great deal of progress made in 2013. The Legislature made a bipartisan commitment of $15 million to support the new courthouse our community so badly needs. Other noteworthy milestones in 2013 include the hiring of a project manager, and the start of work by the National Center for State Courts to analyze what functions are essential in a new courthouse. To cover immediate project management funds, the county has reserved proceeds from a property sale on the west end of the Morrison Bridge. And the county has identified debt service funds that can be redirected for this project as bonds expire to match a state commitment. We expect this project ultimately will create 1,845 direct jobs and 2,835 indirect jobs. Beyond those jobs, this project will give every county the chance to evaluate the improved delivery of judicial services that’s a big goal of this project.

What’s next?

The county will choose an “owner’s rep” by early December 2013 to conduct a cost analysis, oversee contracts, and add its expertise to help the county plan the best courthouse layout, footprint, size and functional configuration for the next 50 years. Also, Partnerships BC will begin in the winter of 2013-14 to provide a business case analysis. All those steps ahead are geared toward a site selection near the end of the current fiscal year (June 2014) as well as an RFP for design and construction of a new courthouse. The county’s goal is to complete construction by 2019.

What is planned for the existing courthouse?

No decisions are scheduled right now for the existing 100-year-old courthouse. Our immediate focus is on maintaining the progress we’re making on finding a new site for the new courthouse. But we know the future of the existing courthouse is an important conversation that will take into account all stakeholders. And obviously, preservationists will be a huge contributor to that conversation because they bring an invaluable expertise and passion to this community discussion.