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Multnomah County breaks ground on 'tremendous' $300 million courthouse project

JONATHAN HOUSE - The new Multnomah County Courthouse broke ground this morning, at the corner of Southwest Madison Street and First Avenue.It's been a long, controversial road, but ground was finally broken on the new Multnomah County Central Courthouse on Tuesday morning — an estimated $300 million project being built near Southwest First Avenue and Madison Street and at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge.

Multnomah County and the state are splitting the cost of the new courthouse.

State Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin said the project's funding was driven by reality: “Multnomah County nor the state could afford to fund this project without that partnership,” he said.

“The impact of projects like this is tremendous. This is going to be one of the largest public works projects in this region, probably over the next several years.”

COURTESY OF MULTNOMAH COUNTY - A rendering shows the new courthouse's entrance.The 17-story courthouse will have 44 courtrooms and should open in 2020.

Designers on the project are Portland's SRG Partnership and RicciGreene Associates of New York City, who specialize in justice department developments. Hoffman Construction is the general contractor and construction manager.

The courthouse is expected to employ hundreds of people in family-wage jobs, and more than 500 construction workers while it is being built.

The project team has worked with local unions to develop the plan, but Multnomah County went a step further and created diversity goals. The goal is to employ 20 percent minority workers, which will be 20 percent journey level workers, 25 percent women apprentices and 6 percent journey level working women.

“Those two are very much connected: the more you require women to be apprentices, the more women will be available to be journey level workers on these projects,” Devlin said. “It’s an aspirational goal that I think will be met and be very beneficial.”

JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Commissioners pose for a photo at the new courthouse groundbreaking

Urgency and motivation

The development replaces the 100-year-old courthouse, which is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. It was built around the same time as the Pittock Mansion, when the safety priority was protection against fire. No decision has been made on the current seismically unsafe courthouse, located along Southwest Fourth Avenue and Main Street.

“Multnomah County has been trying to replace the courthouse for over 50 years,” said County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Taking on a massive infrastructure project like building a new courthouse seemed daunting, but I wasn’t going to let it be another study sitting on a shelf without a plan to move forward.”

Multnomah County has been inviting public input on the topic since early 2015. “This state-county partnership is truly a statewide partnership — those courthouses (in Union and Jefferson counties) were part of making sure we can get the Multnomah County courthouse deal done with the state,” said Oregon House Majority Leader Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Portland Democrat. “It’s a new model, it helped us change the way we fund courthouses across the state. This is really cutting-edge on state-county partnerships.”

COURTESY OF MULTNOMAH COUNTY - A rendering shows what the new courthouse will look like from Tom McCall Waterfront Park.The entry to the new courthouse will have a grand stairway visible through a double-height glass on the corner entryway.

“This is the third courthouse built in recent years in a new partnership between the state and counties to replace inadequate courthouse facilities across the state,” said Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Balmer, referring to the new courthouses in Union and Jefferson counties. “Both of those courthouses were designed and built with close collaboration between counties and the state to be dignified, highly functional and attractive but not extravagant.”

The new courthouse will protect against seismic threats as well as protect witnesses, victims, jurors, the public and criminal defendants.

Williamson said this is the busiest courthouse in the state, so it makes sense that it's funded by both the state and county. “Not only will this be functional, it is beautiful. It will be a stunning landmark for our city,” she said. “I find it appropriate it will be the gateway to the south side of downtown, revitalize the neighborhood and stand as a symbol for justice as you come across the river and look out onto the city.”

JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack chats at the groundbreaking for the new courthouse.There are plans for an improved childcare facility, a juror’s waiting lounge with a beautiful view changes to the way technology is incorporated and more safe procedures for moving criminal defendants around the building, keeping people who are shackled away from the public and children. There will also be a library of resources for the 23 percent of cases with one side unrepresented by lawyers.

Presiding Judge for Multnomah County Nan Waller brought a brick with her that she’s been carting around the state to prove her point in support of a new courthouse.

“This is what our current courthouse is made of: unreinforced masonry,” Waller said. “It is what provided urgency and motivation for replacing the courthouse.”

“When you see the plans and come visit the building in 2020, you’ll see it as a transparent building, which is what the justice system should be. People can easily find their way and understand what’s going on."

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