Although it is still years away, Clackamas County can finally start planning a new courthouse in Oregon City to replace an 80-year-old building that is inadequate and likely to collapse into the Willamette River during a severe earthquake.
The county has received a $1.25 million grant, which the Legislature included in the current two-year state budget, to start design of what is envisioned as a $154 million building.
The new courthouse would be on the county's Red Soils campus, just west of its Public Services Building and Development Services Building, and close to the sheriff's office, jail and juvenile department.
"I am excited about the prospect that this looks like a reality for us — a $154 million investment, almost half of which the state is going to pay for," County Administrator Don Krupp said at a briefing for county commissioners on Tuesday (Oct. 17).
"If we lose that opportunity to pursue it, it may be 10 to 20 years before we envision doing something about our court system."
Deputy County Administrator Laurel Butman said the project goes back almost 20 years.
The first of what will be several design workshops, involving all the agencies using the courthouse, is scheduled Dec. 21.
The initial concept calls for a five-story building housing 16 courtrooms and 20 chambers for judges, plus offices for the district attorney and the Oregon Department of Human Services. It would include a basement for secured parking and prisoner transfers.
When the current building in downtown Oregon City was completed in 1937, it housed one courtroom and county government offices. It now houses 11 courtrooms and 11 judges. There is no room, even with an adjacent building, to accommodate more even though the county qualifies for 14 or 15 judges.
Because the limited space is shared by the public, jurors, judges and criminal defendants, "it has the potential for numerous issues," said Chris Lyons, a government affairs manager for the county.
Also, the courthouse sits on unstable soils that could easily collapse into the Willamette during a severe earthquake off the Oregon Coast.
"When and if the big one hits, there will be issues with this building," Lyons said.
Board Chairman Jim Bernard replied half jokingly: "But it will be a great place for a McMenamin's."
Even before he took office as chairman in January, Bernard identified the courthouse replacement as a top priority.
A 50-50 split
Although the state took over the operation of trial courts in 1983, Oregon's 36 counties still have responsibility for the actual courthouses and security.
Lawmakers did create a fund in 2013 to enable the state to aid counties with courthouse repairs and replacement on a 50-50 basis. Much of the state's current two-year allocation, which comes from bond proceeds, will go toward construction of a 17-story, 44-courtroom building for Multnomah County. The $300 million project is scheduled for completion in 2020.
Clackamas County envisions applying for $28.8 million from the state fund for design and preconstruction in 2019, and $48.2 million for construction and furnishings in 2021.
The county would have to raise its share of $77 million — Chief Financial Officer Marc Gonzales says it can do so through "internal financing" without new taxes — but it will probably need to raise millions more for features that the state will not pay for.
Among them: Parking and roadways, both internal to the Red Soils campus and external to connect with Beavercreek Road.
"This design has long been in concept form, so we have a good idea of how the building itself will work," Gonzales said.
Becky Epstein, an architect with SERA Architects of Portland, said the project will result in a loss of about 150 parking spaces, mostly from the Development Services Building.
Commissioner Paul Savas suggested that the project include a parking structure, like those near Multnomah County and Washington County offices.
Because land is becoming increasingly scarce, he said, "it would be a shame to waste it with surface parking."
Gonzales said a parking structure is envisioned on the Red Soils campus in the future, but doing it now would displace other buildings that are expected to remain in use for another decade.
A master plan for the Red Soils campus also envisions a new jail and juvenile center, but there are no specifics yet for them.
Sheriff Craig Roberts was among those who appeared just before the courthouse briefing to ask commissioners to consider a site for an enlarged Family Justice Center nearby. The center, known as A Safe Place, was opened in 2013.
Commissioner Sonya Fischer raised a question about the availability of other services, such as restaurants, for the increased number of users of a new courthouse.
Gonzales said the plan envisions a mixed-use building, likely shared by government agencies and private businesses, across Beavercreek Road.
"We'll see a lot of activity up here," he said.