Federal courthouse plan in L.A. meets opposition

Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles -- A long-sought new federal courthouse for downtown Los Angeles, delayed for years by cost concerns and disputes over its size, could become an early casualty of the congressional drive to reduce the budget deficit.

A bill by Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from California’s Central Valley, would put the vacant courthouse site at 1st and Broadway up for sale for an estimated $25 million. His bill, which has cleared a House committee, has touched off a partisan fight within the state’s congressional delegation and push-back from federal jurists.

“Look, this courthouse has been on the drawing boards since I came to the Senate. It’s time to get it done,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, among the Democrats working to save the $400-million project.


Denham, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees federal buildings, has called a Capitol Hill hearing for Friday to use the L.A. project as a poster child in his efforts to rid the federal government of what he sees as a vast inventory of unneeded property. He called it a “perfect example of something that is just waste in government.”

The proposed courthouse, to be located on the site of a former state building, would replace the Depression-era federal courthouse on Spring Street that court officials say has “among the worst security risks in the nation.” The project has been planned for more than a decade.

Denham suggested that court operations, split between the Spring Street courthouse and the nearby Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, could be moved entirely into the Roybal building — a proposal that was rejected by the chief judge for the Central District of California.

Judge Audrey B. Collins, who presides over one of the busiest federal courts in the country, urged authorities to push ahead with the long-delayed Los Angeles project.

“We have really huge security problems at the Spring Street courthouse and asbestos problems as well,” she said, referring to employee reports of respiratory problems. “The idea that all the judges could be stuffed into Spring Street or Roybal — it just wouldn’t work.”

Federal judges in the Los Angeles area consider the need for the courthouse well-established and pressing, said U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow, who plans to address the House subcommittee Friday.

Since its estimated cost skyrocketed to more than $1 billion, the project has been scaled down to a proposed 650,000-square-foot building with 24 courtrooms and 32 judges’ chambers. Plans call for renovating the current courthouse to house executive branch agencies now in leased facilities.

“We’re not talking about a palace,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), who represents the district in which the project is located.

Virtually all of the California Democrats in Congress signed a recent letter in support of the project, saying that security and space problems at the aging Los Angeles facilities “will only be exacerbated as the court grows.” They also said the project would create critically needed construction jobs.

Proponents of the project say it can be built with the money already authorized by Congress. “We’re not asking for a penny more,” Roybal-Allard said.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, also criticized Denham, saying that “it’s a little unusual that one portion of the state would be targeting another part of the state to target the elimination of a project.”

Denham’s move to kill the project comes as the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, has found that many of the recently constructed courthouses around the country were larger and costlier than necessary, partly because the judiciary “overestimated the number of judges who would be located in them.” A court official said the Los Angeles project would “not include space for any new projected judgeships, even though legislation currently in Congress would create nine new district judge positions.”

Sale of the courthouse site is included in a broader Denham bill that would set up a commission to sell or consolidate federal buildings, potentially saving up to $15 billion.

Denham also has pitched his bill to the congressional panel scrambling to reduce the federal budget deficit.

A decision on the courthouse could at least bring finality to a project that has been stalled for years. “Anything well-designed that fills up a hole in the center of the city is a good thing,” said Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Assn., a downtown business group.