Construction is scheduled to begin during the first half of 2006 on what will be, for a short while anyway, the tallest courthouse in California. The federal courthouse at Broadway and State Street in downtown San Diego will reach 22 stories — 407 feet — into the sky.

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners, the slender, 620,000-square-foot building will have a footprint of only 24,000 square feet, leaving plenty of space on the 2.27-acre site for a new public plaza and extensive landscaping. The courthouse will provide 18 courtrooms for the Southern California District and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as office space for the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Trustees Office and the General Services Administration (GSA). Approximately 610 people will work in the structure, according to the GSA, which in charge of the project.

“In addition to meeting the specific program requirements of the courts, the new United States federal courthouse in San Diego is designed to contribute to an urban fabric that is much larger than the construction site,” lead architect Michael Palladino, of Meier’s Los Angeles office, said earlier this year.

The courthouse will fill a corner of downtown that has been a sore spot for years with downtown boosters. The site was home to three dilapidated residential hotels — the San Diego, the Capri and the State — and an ominous corner liquor store. After purchasing the site last year, the GSA demolished the Capri and State. At the same time, the government boarded up the San Diego, which has sat vacant ever since. It is due to come down in 2006. With the residential hotels out of business, the liquor store quickly closed.

While few would dispute that the government is eliminating urban decay in San Diego’s bustling downtown, housing advocates are angry that the federal government has provided no replacement housing. The residential hotels provided about 400 rooms for poor people. The group Housing Coalition San Diego fought, but failed, to preserve the Hotel San Diego.

“That was particularly galling as it is a federal project, [the hotel] was closed long before construction was due to start and tenants were evicted with no plan whatsoever to replace the lost housing,” said Richard Lawrence, co-chair of Housing Coalition San Diego.

Catherine Rodman, director of Affordable Housing Advocates, said it was wrong to evict the Hotel San Diego tenants two years before demolition. Rodman said she hates to argue to keep open substandard facilities. However, she charged, city officials showed little concern for the condition of Hotel San Diego until the site was wanted for other development.

The City Council and the city’s semi-autonomous redevelopment agency did ask federal officials to replace the low-income housing units, but city officials did not attempt to enforce a city ordinance that requires one-for-one replacement of any single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms that are demolished or converted to other uses.

Federal officials have been unwilling to provide housing assistance. Instead, they emphasize the benefits that the new courthouse will bring to downtown San Diego.

“The building will be a significant architectural statement and a major contribution to the development of downtown San Diego,” Circuit Court Judge Margaret McKeown said in a prepared statement. During a design presentation in San Diego earlier this year, GSA Regional Administrator Peter Stamison called the planned courthouse “a future landmark … that will shape our country’s architectural legacy.”

The design is modern yet warm, with prominent off-white tones. Materials such as natural stone, terra cotta and concrete are being considered. The rectangular courthouse will rise above an elliptical lobby, which will be visible from all approaches. The sunny lobby will include a 200-foot-long, south-facing ribbon window that frames a “mural garden.” A large jury assembly space with a terrace will sit adjacent to the lobby.

The thin high-rise will permit daylight to penetrate the entire building, and pedestrian activity within the building will be clearly visible from the public plaza. The idea is to express the dynamic, accessible judicial process, according to the architects.

The most public part of the project, though, will be the new plaza, promenade and gardens outside the courthouse. Architects and federal officials have designed the grounds as a community gathering place. The plaza will open to Broadway on the north and E Street on the south. Designers have placed all support and service areas below ground to provide space for the plaza and gardens.

The courthouse’s “front door” will be on the plaza, not on Broadway or State Street. Earlier this year, Centre City Development Corporation, the city’s redevelopment agency, complained that the design was not friendly to pedestrians on adjacent sidewalks, and some city representatives suggested incorporating retail stores or restaurants along the streets. These days, however, security needs dominate courthouse layouts, and immediate street access is a security problem.

Federal officials also cite security as a reason for providing only 105 parking spaces — none of which will be for the general public.

Officials estimate the new courthouse will cost $200 million to complete, making it by far the most expensive in California to date. Construction is scheduled to take four years, with the courthouse opening in 2010. The existing Edward J. Schwartz Federal Courthouse will remain in use, just across the promenade from the new facility.

Just how long the San Diego courthouse will be the tallest is uncertain, as a new federal courthouse in Los Angeles is planned to have 23 stories.

General Services Administration, Pacific Rim Region, (415) 522-3001
Catherine Rodman, Affordable Housing Advocates, (619) 233-8441.