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New Courthouse Construction on Wake Ave Launched
Large machinery marks the start of construction on the new Imperial County courthouse in El Centro on Wake Avenue east of Eighth Street. | Corissa Ibarra photo

California’s Judicial Council At-last Launches New Courthouse Construction on Wake Ave.

EL CENTRO — After years of delays and with funding finally secure and foundation work underway, construction on the new state of California Superior Court facilities for Imperial County is anticipated to be finished by late fall 2021.

Recognizing the current Imperial County courthouse facilities spread out between three Imperial County sites lack adequate space and are deficient in numerous aspects for ample access to justice, the new 47,680-square-foot consolidated courthouse off Wake Avenue in El Centro is now being built, according to state judicial officials.

“The separation of criminal calendars in two locations creates operational inefficiencies,” said Blaine Corren, public affairs officer for the Judicial Council of California in a Feb. 5 email. “Current structures have significant accessibility and efficiency problems that hinder dispensing justice in an impartial manner.”

The Judicial Council is the policymaking body for the California court system. The council, through its capital program office, is responsible for the planning and construction of court facilities in the state.

The new building for the Imperial County Superior Court that broke ground about a year ago will comprise of four courtrooms and support spaces in a single, two-story building, Corren explained. Some $67.1 million in funding was authorized by the Judicial Council to cover construction.

Court services for Imperial County are now provided from the historic courthouse at 939 W. Main St. that was built in 1923. It is the main courthouse and handles most criminal cases, along with civil, small claims, family court and traffic calendars. There are branch courthouses at 220 Main St. in Brawley and 2124 Winterhaven Drive in Winterhaven, where misdemeanor, small claims, family court and traffic cases are heard. The Brawley site also hears criminal proceedings when the courtrooms in El Centro are unavailable, which is often.

“The county needs a new courthouse because the court’s space in both facilities (El Centro and Brawley) is overcrowded,” Corren said. “They also have significant seismic, physical, functional and accessibility problems.

“Examples … include when deputies escort in-custody detainees in chains through public corridors. Also, judicial and prisoner transportation parking is accessible to the public that creates security risks,” he added.

Further, most features such as service counters, courtrooms and restrooms are noncompliant with Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards. Meanwhile, other issues include inadequate systems for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, mechanical and plumbing needs, as well as inefficient working conditions for court employees.

The new courthouse will be built on 3.6 acres on Wake Avenue between Merrill Center Drive and Thomas Drive. The architects are Safdie Rabines Architects of San Diego. Construction management includes Nielsen Construction (the actual builders) and Vanir Construction Management Inc.

The site has been graded and construction has started, Corren explained. Foundation piles are currently being driven into the ground, he added.

“The design attempts to present a civic appearance for the citizens of Imperial Valley while responding to the extreme temperature swings by protecting exposed glass areas with overhangs and staggered walls on the southern side,” according to Corren’s email.

In addition to larger courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms, attorney-client conference rooms and meeting ADA standards, there will be enhanced security features. There will be entrance screenings of all court users, a secure sally port (a secure entryway consisting of a series of doors or gates) to transport inmates to their court proceedings, adequately sized in-custody holding cells and improved fire safety, according to Corren.

Even after the new courthouse is completed, the historic El Centro courthouse will continue to hear civil, family, small claims and traffic cases. The Brawley courthouse will be closed. The Winterhaven court will remain open. The lease on the court’s former traffic center in the Valley Plaza Shopping Center in El Centro at 1625 Main St. ran out in February 2019.

Prior to receiving funding to take the project forward, the courthouse was ranked as a “critical need” in the judicial branch’s capital outlay plan, Corren noted.

“Senate Bill 1407 created the initial funding stream making it among the highest-priority infrastructure projects,” he wrote in the email. “Enacted in 2008, the bill provided up to $5 billion in bond funding for new and renovated courthouses.”

Yet from 2008 to 2013 some $1.5 billion in court construction funds were borrowed and redirected to the state general fund or to court operations, Corren pointed out. Because of these actions, courthouse projects statewide were delayed. This required the Judicial Council to reduce its construction budget.

“After several years of funding shortfalls, the state started breaking ground about 2018/19,” he said. “The state budget act of 2018/19 committed resources to finish 10 critically needed new courthouses, including the one in El Centro. The state is paying for it by issuing revenue bonds with debt repaid by the state’s general fund. This is a digression from usual procedure when debt was repaid by fines and fees levied on court users.”

The new El Centro courthouse will be owned by the Judicial Council.

“The Judicial Council evaluated renovation of the historic courthouse and found it would not be feasible, due to the building’s space limits and security issues,” Corren wrote. “Also, the county holds title to the courthouse and in most cases the state cannot renovate a building it does not own.” Framing of the new courthouse is anticipated in fall 2020. Mechanical systems are expected to be completed in spring 2021 and driveways, walkways, water and wastewater hook-up and landscaping will be completed by late fall 2021.

This story is featured in the Feb 13, 2020 e-Edition.

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