Even with its luminous glass facade and penthouse helipad, commuters on the San Diego Freeway may think it is just another office building bordering Los Angeles International Airport.
But by next week, lawbreakers and law abiders alike may view the 10-story building in a decidedly different light. That's when the new Airport Courthouse becomes the criminal justice hub of the Westside. Prospective jurors, defendants and lawyers will get more close-up glimpses of the $107-million county complex, which officials describe as a model for 21st century jurisprudence and security design.
But it opens after a troubled history.
Arriving four years behind schedule and almost $40 million more than initial cost estimates, the project was hampered by a string of financial, planning and legal foul-ups that plagued a countywide court expansion plan. As a result, this brave new courthouse is among the last that Los Angeles County will build for a very long time, officials say.
The Airport Courthouse is the only one of eight initially planned courthouses that has been completed; plans for all but two others have been abandoned. At one point, it looked as if the Airport Courthouse too might be scrapped when officials learned its original site was in the flight path of a planned runway at LAX. The snafu forced the county to find the current site, near the intersection of the San Diego and Century freeways.
The new courthouse is intended to ease chronic overcrowding in aging criminal courtrooms in Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Malibu, Culver City and Torrance, and will also host a satellite office of the county registrar-recorder's office. The courthouse has 14 courtrooms and space enough for eight more in the future.
The building, at 11701 S. La Cienega Blvd., is shaped like a box, and its freeway-facing side is made of green tinted glass that glows at night. A curved, clear elevator bank runs up that exterior wall.
The building's opposite side, where the public enters, is built of curved concrete. Visitors step into a two-story atrium lobby of marble, granite and opaque glass.
The noisy courtrooms, logjammed metal detectors and crammed hallways typical of older courthouses are happily missing here, say court staff. Sheriff's deputies call it the county's most secure courthouse, and clerks praise the ergonomic workstations, speedy elevators and private hallways.
What's more, courthouse caretakers and designers hope the building's nontraditional style will dispel much of the anxiety felt by the public in existing courthouses, buildings that at least one judge has described as "1950s gothic."
"Most people don't want to go to court, and when they do they can have an attitude," said Michael Mosakowski, of Mosakowski Lindsey Associates, the Pasadena architectural firm that carried out the initial designs of the Minneapolis-based company Ellerbe Becket. "What designers tried to do here was create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable, in hopes that they would be more cooperative."
Although the effect on the public remains to be seen, courtroom officials say the building has put them at ease since an early trickle of cases moved there in October. They particularly like its security system.
In some older courts, rickety chain-link fences pose the only barrier between quick-footed felons and freedom. The Airport Courthouse features a prison-like holding facility and a network of prisoner transport corridors and elevators.
Among other innovations, jailed defendants will be arraigned in special sound-wired cells, separated from the actual courtroom by shatterproof glass and brick. Through a large window, the defendants can watch the action in the courtroom and be observed by court officials and spectators.
Courtrooms have arched ceilings to enhance sound in the business portion near the judge's bench, called the well, and stifle noise emanating from the rear, where spectators sit. Also, special soundproof carrels have been installed in the back of two main arraignment courtrooms, allowing prosecutors and defense lawyers to negotiate cases away from the din.
And the Airport Courthouse bristles with scores of remote-controlled video cameras that constantly monitor the courthouse. Panic alarms are placed strategically throughout the courthouse.
"There is very much a sense of security you get here," said the court's administrator, Tom Zecchini. "And security makes everybody here feel a lot better about doing business."
Sheriff's deputies from throughout the county have jockeyed for positions in the new courthouse. "Everybody volunteered," said Sheriff's Lt. Steven Weisgarber. "I was surprised. Everybody who took a look at this place wanted to work here."
The new courthouse was officially named the Los Angeles Municipal Court Airport Branch, but that name is already obsolete. Last month, the county's municipal and superior courts consolidated and dispensed with the "municipal" designation. That left officials scratching their heads over what to do about those words "Los Angeles Municipal Court" stamped into concrete on the building's upper south side.
That problem is minor compared to the troubles the county encountered when it planned eight new courthouses in the early 1990s. In a 1998 state audit report, investigators said poor planning and mismanagement had resulted in enormous construction delays and the waste of millions of dollars. The audit said that, among other problems, county officials had drastically underestimated the cost of building construction.
By 1994, money shortages forced cutbacks. Now, the only other new courthouses due to be completed are in Chatsworth, where a building is scheduled to open in the summer of 2001, and in the Antelope Valley, where ground may be broken for a courthouse this summer.
County officials said the construction bonds for the Airport Courthouse are being paid for with revenues from county court fines and surcharges.
"No tax money was used," said Vanann Allen, of the county Public Works Department.
Built by Hensel Phelps Construction, of Greeley, Colo., the Airport Courthouse so far has won favorable reviews from employees and the public. But some people insist that the building will be a tough sell, particularly among the Westside's tradition-bound barristers, accustomed to the intimate, albeit battered, criminal courtrooms of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles.
"Well, it's clean, it's new, but there's a certain sterility about it," said veteran defense lawyer Daniel Brookman. "I see things on TV that look more like what a courtroom is supposed to look like."