Project team recommends including DA and high volume courts in new courthouse

December 9, 2015

Owner representative Mike Day (left) addresses the board at Tuesday's briefing.

Multnomah County’s new downtown courthouse should include space for the district attorney’s offices and four high volume courts, project leaders told county commissioners at a Dec. 8 project briefing. The decision about what to include in the courthouse is one of several choices county commissioners will make on Dec. 17 when the project advances into detailed design.

Offices for the district attorney and courts for parking, traffic, small claims and landlord/tenant cases were not included in the base courthouse that was approved by the county board in 2014 for several reasons. At the time the two sites being considered had a 200 foot height limit, which did not allow space for all functions housed in the current courthouse.

In 2015, the Portland City Council increased the height limit to 325 feet, which will allow an 18-story building with space to house the district attorney and the four courts. The building would include a total of 44 courtrooms.

County commissioners were told that including these functions in the new courthouse would be cost effective in the long run. The project’s owner representative Mike Day shared a cost comparison of including the functions in the courthouse versus leasing space for them nearby.  Including the functions in the courthouse will save $100 million to $110 million over 30 years. “Lease rates downtown have increased nearly 20 percent this year,” Mike Day noted.

“Including these functions in the building makes our costs more predictable,” said County Chief Financial Officer Mark Campbell. “It’s unlikely we’d be able to find enough space in one location offsite, which would hurt our operational efficiency.”

District Attorney Rod Underhill

District Attorney Rod Underhill supported the recommendation to house his team in the courthouse. “We’ve always thought we could provide the best service to the public by being in the courthouse,” he said. “But I knew it needed to make good fiscal sense. Now we know it does, and it will be the best location operationally also.”    

Including the DA and the four high volume courts is projected to increase the cost of the courthouse by about $40 million to a total cost of $290 million to $300 million. The county is responsible for the costs to house the DA and four courts wherever they are located.

The project’s funding plan includes one time contributions from the county general fund, funds from county property sales, $125 million from the state, and proceeds from a county bond sale.

Other recommendations by the project team would prevent project costs from escalating. The project team analyzed the costs and benefits of including underground parking in the courthouse and decided it is not a good value.  “Adding one level of underground parking would cost about $10 million, due to the deep foundations needed,” said Mike Day.  “The city has secure parking across the street that we can make available for our judges.”

Another recommended cost savings was eliminating a tunnel between the courthouse and the Justice Center a few blocks away.  A tunnel was considered as a secure way to transfer in-custody defendants. “Building a tunnel has high risks,” Mike Day explained.  “The building will have a secure drive-in sally port for in-custody transfers.  The Sheriff agreed that the benefits of a tunnel did not justify the high cost” (roughly $7 - $8 million).

Commissioner Judy Shiprack listens intently at Tuesday's board briefing.

On Dec. 17 the project team will ask county commissioners to approve the recommendations and release $9.4 million to complete the next phase of the design.  Last summer, SRG Partnership and CGL-RicciGreene were selected as the project’s architects and Hoffman Construction was selected as the Construction Manager/General Contractor.  Hoffman is providing input during the design to maximize cost savings during construction. The project is scheduled to break ground in September 2016 with heavy construction starting in early 2017.  The new courthouse will open for business in 2020.

Several commissioners commented on the special significance of a 2016 groundbreaking for them.  “Some of us are term-limited, so I’m pleased to hear we will break ground before I leave office next year,” noted Commissioner Diane McKeel. “And I promise we will come back for the grand opening in 2020.”