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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

County courthouse blues

When it comes to building courthouses, Multnomah County is having its troubles these days. As the O made glaringly clear last week, even the county commissioners can't get honest answers when it comes to planning for such projects. Take the new courthouse going in in East County, for example -- Commissioner Jeff Cogen pointedly asked last year whether the $16.35 million budget he was voting on was based on current, as opposed to stale, projections. Here's the exchange, which was caught on tape:

"I just want to make sure we're not committing ourselves to a project, and then we find out it's costing twice as much money," Commissioner Jeff Cogen said at the time.

"Well, these are estimates," responded Pam Krecklow, then the project manager. "So I can't guarantee a price at this point."

Cogen pressed.

"Are these current estimates?"

"I'm comfortable with the estimates," Krecklow said.

Her comfort was misplaced, if not misleading. The numbers were nearly two years old at that point, and the current budget is now at $21.1 million, and no doubt rising. The county's still scrambling to find the money to pay for the construction, although the contractor has already been hired and the music plays on. If this is planning, I'd hate to see chaos.

The other hard-luck courthouse story involves the county's main courthouse downtown. It's old, overcrowded, and tired -- one earthquake away from disaster, really -- and it's already been determined that it won't be refurbished in any major way. A new courthouse will be needed somewhere else downtown.

Exactly where it will go still isn't entirely clear. The current fantasy, which dates back to the heyday of the "Mean Girl" county commissioners, is that the new courthouse will be situated right at the end of the west side of the Hawthorne Bridge -- so close to the bridge, in fact, that Naito Parkway (Front Avenue) will have to be lowered eight feet and the westbound offramp from the bridge torn down and completely rebuilt in a much more abrupt alignment. A more logical spot for the new courthouse would have been a block west, across Second Avenue from the Justice Center, where inmates are housed awaiting their appearance in court. But the Usual Developer Suspects got their hands on that block, and they're already building a soulless office tower that will sit between the jail and the new courthouse -- if indeed the courthouse goes there:

And of course, where the money is going to come from for the new county building is, so far, a complete and total mystery. It isn't going to be a $20 million deal, that's for sure -- more like 10 times that much. Rumors out of the old courthouse are that the county recently commissioned a poll to see if it would make sense to put a levy on the ballot in 2010 to pay for the new facility, and the results were negative in the extreme. Voters are not in the mood to increase their taxes for it.

Oh, well. At least the old one will probably outlast the Sellwood Bridge.

Meanwhile, as previously reported on this blog, the City of Portland, through the Portland Development Commission, borrowed $9 million this past March and handed it over to the county to move the Hawthorne ramp -- a move which all by itself is budgeted at $10.7 million (and those were 2007 numbers). If the county either builds the courthouse at the Hawthorne Bridge or sells that property to raise money to build the courthouse elsewhere, it gets to keep the city's money. If it doesn't do either, the city gets the $9 million back with interest, although the agreement between the PDC and the county does not set a firm deadline.

It was reported last week that the county is ready to get going on moving the ramp now, even though the overall courthouse timeline is still way up in the air:

Doug Butler, facilities and property management director for the county, agrees.

The realignment of the Hawthorne Bridge will go out to bid shortly, he says. Last week, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution to move the project forward.

The resolution referred to didn't do all that much. The commissioners noted that "[c]urrent zoning on the North Hawthorne Bridgehead Block limits the height of development and precludes the construction of a building of sufficient size to meet the needs for a new courthouse," and they directed the county facilities folks to "begin work immediately to obtain the required zoning modifications needed to support the construction of a new courthouse on the North Hawthorne Bridgehead Block." That sounds like the start of a long process. And there's no guarantee it will succeed; the proposed courthouse is going to be gigantic, and the city could conceivably say no to something so massive right at the bridgehead.

One mystery that we previously wrote about, now solved, is what the county will do with the $9 million it got from the PDC while it's waiting to spend it on the bridge ramp move. We speculated half-kiddingly that given the tightness of funds these days, the county might use it to meet its current payroll. However, we have since learned that an agreement between the county and the PDC requires the county to place the money in a segregated interest-bearing account pending its expenditure on courthouse-related matters (or its eventual return to the PDC, which seems highly unlikely).

Looked at from a wider perspective, the $9 million forked over by the city to the county seems like hush money. The county has been whining a fair amount lately about how the PDC's "urban renewal" programs take bread out of the mouths of county programs, and the modest financial help with the courthouse deal seems a lot like a PDC effort to quiet the county's criticisms. It's ironic, though -- the city adopts "urban renewal," sucking revenue from all sorts of local taxing jurisdictions, and then cuts backroom deals with those agencies who scream the loudest.

Yesterday we saw that the school district is next for this kind of buy-off. You can't blame them for complaining. The PDC robs the schools of tax dollars, then hands some of their dough over to the county for a courthouse.

Why is this distortion of functions happening? Why are large county and school district budget items now being run through the Portland City Council and its agency, the PDC? The whole scene seems vaguely illegal, and certainly violative of the spirit of the laws that divide up our local government functions. The head of the PDC should not be calling the shots on the financing of the county courthouse, or of the new Lincoln High School.

The intergovernmental money agreement between the PDC and the county, signed last November, has a few other interesting wrinkles to it. The PDC agreed to get involved with helping the county unload some other property the county owns near the Morrison Bridge, but that transaction does not appear to have panned out as planned. The contract also contemplates that part of the block just south of the proposed ramp move -- land that the county owns next to the Veritable Quandary restaurant -- might be declared government surplus and also put up for sale at some point.

On a different front, the county for its part agrees that it will "actively support" either moving or refurbishing the Hooper Detox Center, across from the PDC's star-crossed Burnside Bridgehead site on the east side of the river. Presumably that would spruce up that area and help the PDC finally get something going on its long-vacant eyesore lots there.

Adding to the surrealism of the courthouse deal, the county and the developers who are building the office tower across First Avenue have entered into an agreement whereby the county will have an easement to run a tunnel under the developers' property. The tunnel would be used to walk prisoners from the Justice Center one block east to the new courthouse and back. This tube would actually run mostly under the sidewalk on the Madison Street side of the new office building, but legally that space belongs to the property owner, not the city, and thus it's the property owner's to give away. The county will have an easement to use that space, assuming it can get all the necessary approvals from whatever other government agencies have a say-so.

Leaving aside the enormous engineering costs that such a tunnel would entail, can you imagine the amount of red tape -- at city, state, and probably even federal levels -- that the county would have to plow through to get it built? It seems like a very iffy feature to a very iffy project.

In exchange for the easement, the developers and their construction company (Hoffman, of course) get to use the county's land next to the bridge ramp and the VQ as a staging area during the building of the office tower. As a practical matter, I suspect that means that nothing is really going to happen with the bridge ramp until the office tower is pretty close to finished. Moving that ramp is going to be a major disruption -- apparently, the bridge will be closed to westbound motor vehicles for around a year -- and trying to do it at the same time as the office tower construction would be insane.

Comments (6)

"Why are large county and school district budget items now being run through the Portland City Council and its agency, the PDC?"

Since CoP and PDC have a large money fund and nothing excites them more than building new thigs while everything else collapses. I know they have more money than Mult County.

Besides one more streetcar stop.

Portland UR siphons away around $20 million from the common school fund every year.

The other 80 UR around the state does the same thing.

Over and over again ----around the state--
"the city adopts "urban renewal," sucking revenue from all sorts of local taxing jurisdictions, and then cuts backroom deals with those agencies who scream the loudest."

I've seen all sort of hush money payoffs.

A million UR dollars for HS astro turf buys a lot of school district support for UR.

$6 million in UR for fire sprinkler systems in private devleopment silences the fire district.

All smoke and mirrors with enormous misuse of public money, piling up debt, expanding cost with debt service and undermining basic services.
All a theoretical adventure promoted by the central planning class which delivers nothing but chaos and fiscal calamity.

Good analysis.
One other bit of context. At some point in the distant past a Gresham city councilor threw out that Gresham might contribute $2 million from Rockwood UR funds to help with the East County Courthouse. This offhanded remark became a "promise" which Mult. County started citing.

As far as I know, they're still planning to use this money from Rockwood UR. The project is planned for a key large Rockwood parcel. And as a public building, the new development won't plow a dollor of tax revenue back into Rockwood or any of its UR projects.

A side issue, but of importance to the Hawthorne site, are the Greenway Regulations-both city and state. The regs require a stepping down of building heights, FARs as buildings become closer to the waterfront.

Back in the 70's, 80's and early 90's there were planners, environmentalists and watchdog groups that strongly acknowledged these regs. It is main reason that the complex of PGE buildings right north of this site has the tallest building on the westerly block and significantly smaller buildings on Naito Parkway. In fact Mayor Goldy at the time was a strong advocate of the regs for this project.

Are we ever going to resurrect the enforcement of the regs, the respect for our river, our views, the solar aspect of sunlight to our Waterfront Park, and our views back from the river/riverfront to the west hills?

Any particular reason that it can't be moved across the river, away from the expense and requirements of being in the downtown area? I realize that causes difficulties with moving prisoners to the courthouse, but I bet that could be addressed without too much head-scratchin'...

Thank you for this insightful synopsis regarding the UR projects and the "good intentions" of new justice related facilities of which you so described and mapped out; however, I believe that it will further a downward shift towards disrupting the Portland skyline of distinguished and opulent buildings already crowding the "view" of the city as a whole which is it's first selling point to prospective investors. My point?

I worked for Multnomah County for years in the ramshackle courthouse on SW 4th. You are so right in pointing out that it's an earthquake away from crumbling to the ground. The Park Blocks used to be the sought-after real estate in property values into double digit millions, and now values have spawned towards the waterfront.

Why not raze the courthouse and build on the site where all justice facilities can be incorporated on each floor? Sell the remnants to defray costs to the taxpayers of the city. What would the city council think of that idea? Squashed, I know, but it's a thought.

I am not a blogger, I just enjoy checking out your blog by way of Portland through blogdigger.

Thank you


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