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County Chooses Builder for Antelope Valley Courthouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of debate, a county panel has tentatively selected a developer to build the multimillion-dollar Antelope Valley Courthouse, Supervisor Mike Antonovich announced Thursday.

The decision to begin negotiations with Birtcher, a Laguna Niguel-based development company, still must be approved by the Board of Supervisors in a vote expected Aug. 27.

A panel of county administrators chose Birtcher to build the courthouse in Lancaster over three other finalists, said Antonovich deputy Vicki Fouce. The Alexander Haagen Co. Inc., the developer negotiating to build the Chatsworth Courthouse, came in second and would become the leading candidate to carry out the project if the county and Birtcher do not reach an agreement in four months.

Among Birtcher’s strengths were its flexibility, its understanding of court functions and its ideas for future expansion, said Julie Wheeler, who represented the county chief administrative officer on the panel.

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“They made it obvious in their proposal that they had considered many of the things that we were concerned about,” Wheeler said.

Birtcher, formed in 1939 as a family-owned real estate firm, has been half-owned by Mitsui & Co. Ltd. of Japan for about a year. Some of Birtcher’s larger local developments include the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and the Wholesale Produce Market downtown.

Douglas Anderson, senior principal at Birtcher, said Thursday he was ecstatic about being selected. Although he said the company has never built a courthouse, the architect on the project--Kudrave & Associates--has been involved in some justice facilities.

Original county estimates were that the courthouse would cost $42.7 million. But Anderson said that inflation and an expansion requested by the county could increase the cost to between $50 million and $60 million. He said Birtcher wants to handle the project’s design, construction and financing and then lease the structure to the county, with an option to buy.

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He said the company envisions the courthouse as “very modern, not old traditional, in keeping with the Antelope Valley and its progressive nature.” Renderings depict it as a five-story structure made of precast concrete, natural stone and glass.

The courthouse would include 15 or 16 courtrooms and 21 judges’ chambers, with room for an additional eight courtrooms on the fifth floor, which Anderson said would be built as an unfinished shell.

The four courtrooms of the existing courthouse on Avenue J, built in 1962, have not been able to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing Antelope Valley. Two trailer-style courtrooms were added, but judges, jurors and inmates complain frequently about the cramped conditions.

Controversy erupted over the courthouse project early in its inception, when developers and a Lancaster city councilman charged that one of the sites being considered was favored because it belonged to the politically influential Frank Visco, then chairman of the state Republican Party.

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Later, an alternate, county-owned site was chosen at 421 Avenue M.

Even by the most optimistic estimates, it will be years before the new courthouse is completed. In addition to the usual delays associated with any large construction project, the county requires many additional reviews. A state law mandates staging of court construction so that building must be under way on the West Los Angeles, Chatsworth and North Hollywood courthouses before construction can begin in the Antelope Valley.

County officials said they do not expect the Antelope Valley Courthouse to open before 1995.


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