Temporary courthouse in Costa Mesa will hear cases as Central Justice Center is renovated
Individuals and business owners seeking Orange County Superior Court rulings on small claims and probate cases will soon have to travel to Costa Mesa, as the court’s Central Justice Center in Santa Ana undergoes a series of safety renovations.
The Judicial Council of California, a state-level body that oversees administration of courts and facility matters, recently entered into a lease agreement with the owners of a 77,665-square-foot industrial structure at 3390 Harbor Blvd. for use as a temporary courthouse.
Formerly occupied by National University, the building will be reconfigured to allow for eight courtrooms, eight private judge offices and space for administrative support and the public. Its use as a courthouse was approved Monday by the Costa Mesa Planning Commission.
Associate planner Chris Yeager told commissioners only probate and small claims cases would be shifted to the temporary facility, which would operate Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“A majority of the cases would occur remotely via videoconferencing,” he said. “There [would be] no jurors, no criminal proceedings, and there will be no detention facility on the premises.”
While the Central Justice Center typically hears an average of 191 small claims and probate cases per day, in the wake of pandemic restrictions, the average number of in-person daily visits has shrunk to about 24 — or about 12% of the total caseload, Yeager explained.
The Harbor Boulevard site contains 608 parking spaces, including 137 dedicated for use by another office on the property and 347 leased out for use by the Anduril site under construction next door.
Yeager acknowledged a complete return to in-person court cases and maximum traffic levels would result in a deficit of 29 spaces. Commissioners agreed should that occur, adjustments may have to be made to the Anduril lease.
Shifting services and cases away from the high-traffic Central Justice Center — which comprises 66 courtrooms alongside numerous offices and departments and sees roughly 8,000 people come through its doors each day — is a major undertaking.
David Yamasaki, court executive officer for Orange County Superior Court, said in an interview Thursday the leasing of the Costa Mesa facility will allow for some badly needed safety upgrades at the Santa Ana courthouse.
Built in 1968, the center was historically owned and operated by the County of Orange before legislation signed into law in 2002 by then-Gov. Gray Davis shifted the oversight and financial responsibility for all California’s courthouses to the state.
Yamasaki said several upper floors in Santa Ana’s courthouse were previously renovated under the county’s ownership to accommodate the addition of sprinklers and an advanced fire alarm system. During that process, old and unsafe building materials, such as asbestos, were removed and replaced.
When ownership of the building transferred to the state level, however, the county no longer oversaw site improvements.
“Any of the additional work that would have been performed to complete full renovation … was discontinued,” Yamasaki said. “Floors 3 through the basement did not have those advanced systems and, for a time, there were segments of the buildings where an alarm would go off and people would not be able to hear it.”
The Fire/Life Safety project earmarks more than $58 million in state general revenue funds to complete needed safety upgrades throughout the Central Justice Center. Once the Costa Mesa courthouse begins handling cases, which could start early next year, the resultant vacancies in Santa Ana will allow for a phased work plan to begin.
As floors become retrofitted, the remaining courtrooms and uses will rotate within the facility, leaving new vacancies for the next phase of work to take place. The renovations are estimated to continue into 2025, barring any supply chain issues.
“The objective was really to minimize disruption, not only to the function of our court but to minimize disruption to our public,” Yamasaki said Thursday.
In the meantime, the Judicial Council may lease the Costa Mesa facility for up to 60 months, with the option to either terminate the agreement after 36 months or extend it beyond that period in two, 12-month increments, according to information provided by council spokesman Blaine Corren.
The lease will commence once tenant improvements are completed at the Harbor Boulevard site, which could occur as soon as Oct. 1, Corren indicated. Rent for the initial 36 months of the agreement will cost $4,509,827. If the space is needed longer, the additional 24 months will cost another $3,292,876.
Yamasaki said despite the immensity of the planning and work, the effort will be worthwhile.
“Having a safe facility to perform the responsibilities we have is not just for the benefit of the public but everyone who works in the facility,” he said.
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