February 1, 2023
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Courthouse project slashed by one third


State officials have chopped plans for a new criminal courthouse in Santa Barbara from three stories to two and slashed its square footage by one-third in the face of budget cuts. Instead of constructing a new building, the existing Figueroa Street structure will used as the basis for an expansion.

The new courthouse slated for downtown Santa Barbara escaped elimination after state court officials killed seven similar projects around California. But what remains of the project is a much more modest version of what at one point was proposed as a brand-new, $151 million facility in the heart of the city.

Court officials confirmed to the Business Times on Tuesday that a smaller set of plans have received the preliminary go-ahead from the state-level Court Facilities Working Group.

The new proposal, which reflects “tens of millions of dollars” slashed from the project’s budget, cuts the building down from 97,000 square feet to 65,000 square feet and from three stories to two, Santa Barbara Superior Court Executive Officer Gary Blair told the Business Times.

Plans for a court parking structure have also been scrapped. Blair said courthouse visitors will have to use the downtown public parking structures instead.

And the latest proposal means that the existing Figueroa Street criminal courthouse will still be used and incorporated into the new facility. The court system paid $7.1 million earlier this year to buy the nearby 1025 Santa Barbara St. property for construction of the new courthouse.

Officials from the 24 “critical need” courthouse projects around the state went before the working group last week to make the case for why their particular projects should be spared.

“We had to make case for why this project should go forward and what we had done to cut costs,” Blair told the Business Times.

He and Presiding Judge Brian Hill presented their scaled-down plans, which then received the green light from the working group. That group will pass its recommendations on to the California Judicial Council, which will make final decisions at its Oct. 26 meeting.

Plans for a new criminal courthouse in Santa Barbara have been in the works for four years, since California Senate Bill 1407 authorized up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds to finance new construction and renovation for 41 courthouses around the state.

Santa Barbara court and law enforcement officials have complained about the lack of security at the existing criminal courthouse, which they say is severely worn down and in need of major renovations. Defendants in criminal trials are often transported across the street from the Figueroa Street facility to the historic, Spanish Colonial Revival-style civil courthouse on Anacapa Street.

The open-air Anacapa courthouse, sometimes lauded as one of the most beautiful civic facilities in the U.S., is also a tourist stop. Blair said that creates an especially acute security problem. “Sometimes we even have to move [defendants] in front of all these tourist buses,” he said.

According to the state court system, by 2013, “about $1.5 billion of court user fees originally designated by the Legislature to be set aside for court construction will have been borrowed, transferred to the general fund or redirected to court operations.”

With its budget slashed, the court system said Sept. 10 that seven of the 41 California courthouse projects had been placed on indefinite hold. A spokesperson for the court system who did not wish to be quoted told the Business Times that the delay was tantamount to killing those seven projects.

The timeline for the surviving project remains unclear. If the Santa Barbara courthouse receives final approval from Judicial Council next month, it will proceed into the planning stages. Architectural drawing and design typically takes about 18 months, Blair said, and construction is generally an 18- to 24-month process.