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New, larger courthouse opens in Long Beach

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Derek Sielicki stood outside the new courthouse in Long Beach on Monday, watching his young son splash in a fountain.

His family was there to fight an eviction, but they couldn't help stopping to admire the new building, with its wooden ceilings and its glass facade sparkling in the sun.

"My son thought it was the museum," Sielicki said. "He was asking where the dinosaurs were."

The $340-million Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse, part of the Los Angeles County Superior Court system, opened to the public Monday, just down the street from the decrepit 55-year-old facility it is replacing.

The new 531,000-square-foot structure — more than 65% larger than the old building — has 24 courtrooms with room to expand to 30, according to court officials. The building also has wireless Internet access throughout and space for five retail occupants.

State officials said the old Long Beach courthouse was one of the most outdated in the state, known for overcrowding, lines that stretched around the block and security problems.

The old courthouse also had rat and cockroach infestations, and one judge gave a name to a rat that kept trying to make a home in his courtroom, said Keby Boyer, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The building was declared seismically unsafe and unable to adequately serve Long Beach's population, she said.

In 2005, a juror had a heart attack in the old building, and paramedics were slowed by faulty escalators and an elevator that did not reach the sixth floor, where the juror was. By the time paramedics reached him, he had died.

The old courthouse had three public elevators, court officials said. The new one has six, as well as stairs and escalators.

In the old courthouse, inmates were led down the hallway that connected Judge James D. Otto's chambers to his courtroom, and some would say hello to him. It made his colleagues uncomfortable that there were not more security barriers, he said.

"I miss the murderers and rapists standing by my chambers and saying hello," Otto said, sarcastically, on Monday.

The city probably will not reuse the old courthouse building but can't yet afford to demolish it, said Michael Conway, director of business and property development for the city of Long Beach. The building will be secured and maintained until its fate is determined.

The Deukmejian Courthouse opens as the county's court system grapples with budget cuts that forced the closure of eight regional courthouses this year and the elimination of more than 500 jobs.

The courts are funded by the state, and the new Long Beach courthouse is the first in the state to be built as a public-private funding partnership, Boyer said.

The developer, Long Beach Judicial Partners — a consortium of design, construction and real estate companies — paid for the construction of the building up front, Boyer said. The state will repay the cost, plus interest, over 35 years, she said.

"It's a very complex situation," Boyer said. "It's a very complex building. The old Long Beach courthouse is in extremely bad shape.... They had to build this before someone was injured."

The plans to create a public-private partnership started under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration as a way to explore new sources of funding for the much-needed courthouses, Boyer said.

Over the last five years, the judiciary's general fund support has been slashed by more than 65%, officials said. The courts have supplemented the budget by tapping into reserve funds and taking money that had been earmarked for capital improvements and technology upgrades.

"We have courthouses that are 100 years old that need to be replaced now," Boyer said.

Boyer said the state has identified 41 courthouses across the state that need to be replaced immediately because of their condition. Of those, 11 have been indefinitely delayed because of budget problems, she said.

On Monday, Long Beach courthouse staffers pushed leather chairs from the old building down the street to the new one. Files were still being transferred, and some people who'd come to the courthouse on business were asked to return next week, once things had settled down.

Still, court users marveled at the new building.

A homeless man sitting near a tree outside yelled at two Long Beach police officers as they walked out of the new building: "I love the new courthouse!"

The officers looked back and smiled.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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