DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Downtowners were nearly euphoric in January when Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard suddenly announced that long-stalled plans to build a federal courthouse on a notorious Civic Center blight spot were being fast-tracked.
Now there is an equal level of joy, with the recent announcement that the $400 million courthouse on the southwest corner of First Street and Broadway will be joined by a new federal building.
At the same time, there is a level of caution, with concern that the project relies on too much speculation at a time when the economy remains soft.
On June 22, officials with Roybal-Allard’s office made an again surprising announcement, this time that the federal General Services Administration plans to transfer ownership of the Spring Street Courthouse, which is set to be vacated when the new courthouse is completed, to a developer. The developer, in exchange, would be required to build a new federal office building with a similar value to the Spring Street courthouse on the First and Broadway site.
“It’s a win-win,” said Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry. “How many years have we been talking about this? I think this is great.”
Like most Downtown stakeholders, Perry had grown frustrated with the state of the site — plans had stalled when the 41-courtoom project’s estimated cost soared to $1.1 billion. January’s $400 million proposal represented a downsizing of the effort.
According to a spokesman for Roybal-Allard’s office, the 1938 courthouse at 312 N. Spring St. is valued at $53 million. That means a developer would have to build an approximately 150,000- to 175,000-square-foot building on the 3.6-acre site that will also house the federal courthouse. Plans call for the courthouse to open in 2016.
Once the new federal office building is completed, the developer would take over the Spring Street Courthouse. If the plan comes to fruition, it would be a stunning turnaround for a Civic Center property where the biggest claim to fame in recent years has been an artist placing a family of papier-mâché beachgoers.
“I applaud GSA Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini for finding an innovative, practical, and fiscally responsible solution to meet our judiciary and federal workspace needs in Downtown L.A.,” said Roybal-Allard in a statement.
However, some Downtown real estate experts are not as confident of the deal.
“I think it’s an extremely speculative deal that’s fraught with problems in a difficult marketplace,” said Chris Martin a partner at AC Martin Architects.
Martin, the architect and project manger for the nearby $231 million restoration of the Hall of Justice, said the trade may not pencil out financially since a developer would have to retrofit and renovate the courthouse, a project the GSA estimates at $250 million. They would also have to come up with a profitable use for a building that Martin said is best suited as a courthouse.
“I just think it’s a pretty farfetched idea,” he said.
His position was echoed by Paul Keller, a principal at the Downtown based planning and development firm Urban Partners.
“I think that in today’s economy, speculative office building development is out of the question,” he said. With additional hurdles such as the amount of money needed to renovate the Spring Street property, Keller said he doesn’t see the historic building as a profitable project.
The General Services Administration, which acts as a landlord for federal agencies, spent $16.9 million to acquire and prepare the Civic Center site, and another $16.3 million on designs for a 41-room courthouse. The project hit a wall in 2008 when delays and design changes pushed the estimated cost to the $1.1 billion level.
Roybal-Allard’s January announcement revealed that the scaled-back courthouse would include 24 courtrooms and 32 judges’ chambers. As part of the plan, the 1938 Spring Street Courthouse, which along with the 1992 Roybal Federal Building currently house federal courthouse operations, would be vacated.
GSA officials said the $250 million retrofit and renovation cost spurred the need for the swap.
“This plan would save millions in tax dollars and ensure the North Spring Street courthouse does not become another excess property on the government’s books,” Tangherlini said in a statement.
GSA officials said the next step will likely be to solicit project bids. Once a developer is handed the deed to the Spring Street property, any proposals would be subject to local land use and building regulations. They would also likely have to be in compliance with National Register of Historic Places regulations.
The trade, however, does not require any other agency approval.
The new building would consolidate the Office of the US Attorneys and certain Department of Homeland Security personnel, and open up more office space at the 300 N. Los Angeles St. Federal Building, according to Roybal-Allard’s office. There is no timeline yet on when a developer will be selected or when the structure would be completed.
Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Association, said that while the GSA’s proposed trade is “unusual,” she welcomes the plans for two buildings on the blighted spot.
“I think it can work, and we think having these two buildings on that site is going to be terrific for the community,” she said. “It’ll probably require a very sophisticated developer. And we have plenty of those.”
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.