Does Los Angeles need a new courthouse? One lawmaker says no

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Members of Congress grilled a representative of the federal General Services Administration during a Friday hearing in Los Angeles of the Congressional Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. The GSA, the federal agency that manages the government's real estate, has plans to build a new federal courthouse in downtown L.A., but the $400 million project has garnered criticism from some lawmakers who say the court system doesn’t need it.

The new federal courthouse would replace the outdated 1930s-era courthouse on Spring Street. The GSA has said that old courthouse is need of seismic renovations and has asbestos problems and security challenges. Federal district courtrooms are split between two downtown courthouses. The GSA has been long planning to build a new courthouse to consolidate the two. If all goes to plan, the Spring Street courthouse would be sold to a developer. In exchange the developer would build the federal government a new office building that would stand next to the new federal courthouse. The two would sit on the vacant lot at First Street and Broadway.

At Friday's hearing, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Fresno questioned why construction on the new courthouse would begin before the federal government researches the real estate market and considers selling the old one on Spring Street.

“So you are going to go out and do your due diligence in the next six to eight months," Denham asked, "but you are going to begin construction in two months?"

"Yes," replied Kevin Richards, the acting regional commission of the GSA's Public Buildings Service.

"We have the appropriation and authorization. We've been asked to move forward with the project. We feel like we can do that, "Richards said.

The GSA's plan for a new Los Angeles federal courthouse has been long-delayed partly because the project's budget grew to about a billion dollars at one point. The federal agency came under fire last year for spending money on a pricey Las Vegas conference trip and doling out high bonuses to agency employees.

Congressman Denham and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) called on Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to testify.

"You could house the entire district court in this building [Roybal] if federal judges would share [courtrooms] and you would not have to build a new courthouse," Goldstein said.

Richards said although those district courtrooms could also fit into the existing Roybal federal building, it would need major renovations to make that possible.

"It’s not as easy as just saying you can convert a bankruptcy courtroom into a district courtroom," he said. According to Richards, officials would need to add prisoner holding cells, prisoner transportation, secure circulation and more.

Richards told lawmakers that GSA has worked to reduce the size of the future courthouse from 41 courtrooms to 24 and said federal judges would have to share some of the courtrooms in the Roybal building once the new courthouse is built.

Los Angeles area politicians have praised the decade long plans to build the new courthouse hoping it will bring economic stimulation to the city, create jobs and improve downtown's landscape.

"In a city with an unemployment rate over 12 percent, much of it in the construction industry, this is exactly what we need," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villarigosa in a statement submitted at the subcommittee field hearing.

Even if lawmakers don’t like the plan, they can’t do much about it. The federal government has already authorized and appropriated money for the project, meaning the General Services Administration won’t have to return to Congress if it can complete construction within budget.

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