Verdict on Repairs Worries Merchants : San Fernando: Courthouse work will take 14 months, and shop owners fear loss of business.


The verdict is in on the San Fernando courthouse, and for many of the merchants near the building on Maclay Avenue, it feels like the death penalty.

The 11-year-old structure, which was red-tagged after the Northridge temblor, will remain closed for another 14 months for a $15-million rebuilding program, Los Angeles County officials announced last week.

For some of the area's small businesses, which have come to depend on courthouse clientele for survival, 14 months might be too long.

"From the day it closed, the whole town just died," said Nick Yohanna, owner of Maclay Cleaners for the past 18 years. "I never knew it affected things this much. Every day is Sunday now."

Yohanna said he lost about 40 customers after the courthouse was shuttered, mostly lawyers, county sheriff's deputies and marshals whom he knew by name.

Kira's Russian restaurant on Maclay and Third Street used to be packed with attorneys and court clerks during the daytime. While the quaint, family-run operation still does good business during the lunch hour, it is empty most of the rest of the day.

"This is too much for us," said owner Garnik Mehrabian, who works in the restaurant along with his wife, daughter, son, sister and brother-in-law. "We lost business during the recession, and the courthouse was the largest part of our business left before the earthquake. There is no profit anymore."

Mehrabian said he didn't feel the loss of courthouse customers for the first few weeks because the restaurant attracted a steady stream of FEMA workers. Now that most of them have moved on, he said he will need help from the government for Kira's to survive.

The loss of the courthouse has already hurt the tiny city's economy, said San Fernando Mayor Dan Acuna. Several businesses affected by the closure have already sought his help, and he is worried about the future.

"The courthouse means a lot to this city," said Acuna, who was originally told the building would take six months to repair. "The longer the courthouse is not in operation, the more damage that will cause to our economy. I'm real disappointed that they're talking about 14 months."

A structural evaluation by a private engineering firm found that 16 support columns and numerous concrete walls, stairwells and pipes were damaged during the Jan. 17 earthquake, said Jim Abbott, general manager of construction and real estate for the county Internal Services Department, which is in charge of repairing county buildings.

"All the building systems are damaged to one extent or another," he said. "I thought it was going to take $30 million."

In addition to repairs, the existing tile roof will be replaced, standard seismic and fire safety upgrades will be installed, and the energy systems will be improved, Abbott said.

A more detailed analysis of the courthouse, which will take 14 to 15 weeks to complete, was begun Wednesday. The architectural firm that will conduct repairs has not yet been chosen, Abbott said.

Meanwhile, judges and clerks are mostly scattered between the San Fernando Municipal Court building and Van Nuys Superior Court, prosecutors and defense attorneys are sharing space with their with Van Nuys counterparts, and some clerks are working out of the old San Fernando police station.

Yet despite the chaos, most San Fernando court cases are being tried on schedule and none have been dismissed or transferred, said Judge Judith M. Ashmann, who supervises the court.

"It's like a diaspora," said Ashmann. "But the judges I work with in San Fernando have just a wonderful attitude about it. To be a judge, all I need is my robe."

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