Funds Are Secured to Finish Conversion of Old Courthouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego's historic former federal courthouse downtown will be refurbished and converted to a bankruptcy courthouse after all, federal judges and Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) said Monday in announcing a funding breakthrough for the much-delayed project.

Lowery, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he recently phoned officials at the General Services Agency, the federal office overseeing the building restoration, and convinced them that the project was a personal priority.

The GSA then allocated the $7.7 million it will take to finish the project from an existing $3-billion pool of federal building funds, Lowery said. Construction at the old courthouse, which ground to a halt a year ago, should resume this summer, with completion scheduled for January, 1994, he said.

"I told (GSA officials) I was not happy, and it's not a good idea to have a senior member of the Appropriations Committee unhappy," Lowery said. The yearlong delay, he added, was due to nothing more than "a basic bureaucratic screw-up."

Renovation of the 79-year-old former courthouse, on F Street and formally called the Jacob Weinberger Federal Building, has been an essential part of space planning at the current courthouse, a block away on Front Street.

The existing courthouse, a reddish stone structure that opened in 1976, has been crowded for several years, and construction there--for more courtrooms and expanded office space--is virtually continuous. Crews are now building new courtrooms on what used to be a lawn in front of the building.

The San Diego federal court has the highest per-judge criminal caseload in the nation, according to federal statistics, and plans call for the court to add four judges to the bench by 1995.

Under a longstanding plan, those new judges have been slotted to take over courtrooms occupied by the bankruptcy court. In exchange, bankruptcy judges have been due to take over five refurbished courtrooms at the former courthouse, a tile-roofed building widely praised for its blend of classic revival and Spanish colonial architecture.

During renovation of the Weinberger Building, originally billed as a $5.4-million project, crews discovered asbestos and lead paint. That added unforeseen costs, and work ground to a halt last March. In August, announcing that $4 million had already been spent but that the end was nowhere near, the GSA officially terminated the renovation contract.

Earlier this month, Judge John S. Rhoades, who since 1986 has helped promote and raise money for the renovation, called Lowery for help.

"Quite frankly, there was embarrassment and a realism (at GSA) that the delay was simply excessive," Lowery said Monday.

In a letter faxed early Monday morning to Lowery, a GSA official thanked Lowery for his "concern for the completion of the renovations." The official, GSA Administrator Richard G. Austin, added that GSA now "is making every effort to resume the renovations of (the building) in the most expeditious and efficient manner possible."

Austin also said in the letter that GSA officials will speedily usher the project through bureaucratic channels so that a construction contract can be awarded in June.

Rhoades, meanwhile, said Monday that he is delighted by the turn of events.

"It looks like a courthouse, and it smells like a courthouse," he said of the Weinberger Building. "It should be a courthouse."

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