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Moving Up : Court of Appeal Settles Into New $5.5-Million Building

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With workers still scraping stucco from the bricks and wiring the courtroom for sound, officials with the 2nd District Court of Appeal began settling into permanent quarters Thursday in downtown Ventura.

The court’s move to a new $5.5-million building on East Santa Clara Street ends an 11-year run of hearing oral arguments wherever and whenever a public room was free.

It also pleases city officials who see the two-story building as a cornerstone to redeveloping downtown, merchants who hope to benefit from noontime foot traffic and attorneys who will no longer have to wonder where to show up for court.

“When you have to be in a borrowed courtroom and people poke their head in looking for something else, it kind of lessens (the court’s) dignity,” said Wendy Lascher, a Ventura attorney who specializes in appellate law.

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“The law needs an institution that’s handsome and people respect and realize it’s important,” she added.

To the city, the two-story gray-and-white building represents more than a stately addition to downtown. It means tapping into new revenue from a previously dry source.

A city parking lot, a sprinkling of apartments, two houses and two small businesses occupied the 1.5-acre lot where the courthouse now sits.

The privately owned portion of the parcel generated about $4,000 in property taxes. The courthouse, which is owned by a private developer holding a long-term lease with the state, is expected to bring in 10 times that amount.

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“It’s definitely in keeping with the overall revitalization goal of the city, which is to spur new investment and develop a stronger employment base in the downtown (area),” said Pat Richardson, the city’s redevelopment director. “Most of the people that will be working there are professional people that have a fair amount of disposable income.”

The building, designed by Tustin-based Okimoto/Siu Architects and Associates, features a marble lobby flanked by stained oak columns, a traditional courtroom lined with wooden benches and lit with chandeliers, and justices’ chambers framed by picture windows that look out into the neighborhood.

“I can see the ocean off to my left, the mountains off to my right and the restaurant down below. What more could anyone ask for?” Presiding Justice Steven Stone said.

Principal architect Richard Okimoto said the challenge was designing a 30,000-square-foot building to blend in with the patchwork of surrounding Victorian homes, businesses and the county’s former courthouse, which now serves as City Hall.

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“It took a long time to evolve into what you see today,” said Okimoto, whose previous design experience included five Coco’s restaurants and a Riverside hotel.

Because of the project’s tight $5.5-million budget, the developer, Hall, Moore and Associates of Newport Beach, decided to concentrate on a few key areas: the courtroom, the lobby and the justices’ chambers.

The biggest benefit of the new quarters will be the consolidation of the court’s offices and courtroom.

Until now, the three justices who make up Division 6 of the state’s 2nd Appellate District have spent most of their time working out of a nondescript office building on South Victoria Avenue.

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But twice a month, the justices and a clerk packed up their files and held court for a day in Ventura, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo counties.

“Now we won’t have to go through the waste of schlepping off somewhere and having to rush through court because we can only have the facility for a limited amount of time,” Stone said.

“Sometimes we’ve shown up and the room wasn’t available. We have had air-conditioning problems, lighting problems. We’ve had problems unlocking the doors.”

Justices hope to hold court twice as often in the new building, giving attorneys more time for oral arguments.

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This week, however, the finer points of law have not been top priority.

Instead, the court’s staff and justices have spent hours boxing up files and posting mover’s stickers on each piece of furniture, picture frame and plant. On Thursday, the grand transfer got under way.

For his part, Stone said, the experience has led him to one conclusion: “There was lots of old stuff that . . . is not worth saving.”


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