Rendering of the future courthouse (Photo courtesy AOC website)
Work may have started, but recent harsh criticism that no local labor will be employed on the new $21.5 million Mono County Superior south county courthouse project in Mammoth Lakes may be a little premature.
The recent groundbreaking of the new complex, courtesy of the State’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) should have been a happy occasion. Mammoth, badly in need of a new court facility, will soon have one, thanks to an evaluation that moved it up on the state’s priority list. The new courthouse will occupy a 1.8-acre site at the intersection of Hwy 203 (aka Main St.) and Sierra Park Rd., and anchor Mammoth’s new government center, replacing the aging, dated and currently leased two-courtroom South County Branch Courthouse, located on the third floor of the Sierra Center Mall.
The event drew a few smiles, but it also garnered a considerable amount of local grousing. Critics of the project were quick to point to what appears to be a lack of local contractors employed on the project.
The key word to remember in the whole scenario is “state.” Like it or not, since the AOC is funding the project in whole, they legally get to call all the shots. Mammoth Lakes Contractors Association President Troy Rowan said that no area firms were eligible to bid for the general contract, because one of the bid requirements was a $7 million bond, a figure out of reach for locals.
“And it’s all being done through state Public Works,” Rowan explained. “There are state laws, budgets and payroll involved.” Rowan agreed with Mono County staff that whether or not local workers are used depends on the budget, which has probably been figured down to the last nail and been in place for several months. “But it’s possible,” Rowan said.
And part of the plan, according to Philip Carrizosa, spokesman for the Office of Court Construction and Management (OCCM), which is essentially in charge of seeing the project from this point on. “Local participation in the construction project has been a goal of the AOC throughout the process,” Carrizosa said. He said the AOC selected San Bernardino-based Sundt Construction as the General Contractor “based largely on their experience in Mammoth Lakes and knowledge of local subcontractors.”
Carrizosa said local suppliers are supplying materials for the project such as concrete aggregates, concrete, earthwork materials, hardware, etc. “Sundt and other subcontractors will be hiring local laborers for portions of the work and continue to do so in the future,” he added.
Rowan said a lot depends on the depth of the local labor pool. “It may not be realistic to try and man-up a project of this size,” Rowan opined. He also said that many local companies could end up weighing their established relations with local contractors against a single project that could tie them up for a year or more. “Speaking for Paul’s Electric, I’m not sure I’d throw my entire crew on one job,” Rowan said. “What do I tell local contractors if, let’s say, the single-family housing market keeps going up? Sorry, I can’t get to you for a year? Imagine the Olympics being held in Mammoth and ABC asked The Sheet to cover the whole thing. You couldn’t do it. Same thing.”
Editor’s aside: Correct. The Sheet would make the difficult decision to narrow its focus and concentrate its coverage on Lindsey Vonn.
Carrizosa also pushed back against recent reports in the local media that the state essentially ignored the Town’s design review process and dismissed any input, leading to what one media editorial said amounted to a “downtown Los Angeles-style” concept that “nobody likes.” Town Community Development Director Mark Wardlaw was quoted in one report as saying that many think the design was “inappropriate for Mammoth.”
The evolution of the civic center site, which includes the new court building, originally included consideration for the Town’s design principles.
“The AOC followed the design process as agreed to with the Town and County in the purchase agreement for the property while also following the AOC’s Courthouse Design Standards,” Carrizosa stated. According to the AOC, architects Mark Cavagnero Associates submitted a design package and met with the Town’s Advisory Design Commission in August 2008. Options discussed at that time between the state and Town and County staff representatives included a variety of sloping roofs and building materials, and based on that meeting, the design was modified to replace wood siding and concrete block walls with brick and weathering steel panels, and a bay window was added.
Carrizosa acknowledged that the AOC did not concur with some suggestions, such as turning the front of the building away from the parking lot. The AOC and its architects also submitted plans and met with the Town’s Planning Commission in February 2009. In early 2010, the Town requested a number of additions to the design, such as additional trees, sidewalks and utility outlets for public events that he said were in fact incorporated into the project, and at the AOC’s expense.
“We used an advisory group, composed of state and local and officials [including members of Town Council, Mono Board of Supervisors and the judiciary] to assist us in various aspect of this project, including the design,” Carrizosa pointed out. “As your own publication noted on May 10, Judge Ed Forstenzer, now retired, shepherded the project for more than a decade and provided valuable input.”
Wardlaw said they [the AOC] weren’t initially receptive to the Towns design review architectural panel and later Planning Commission input. “They agreed to go through the design review process and knew that we put a high-value on mountain-style architecture. Not cookie cutter, but something that speaks to our area,” Wardlaw recalled. By the time the “advisory group” mitigation meetings occurred, Wardlaw said things had progressed “too far downstream.” Couple that with a judiciary that was very concerned at the time about keeping the funding intact and the powers that be had little choice but to allow the process to go forward, in large part based simply on where it fell on the timeline. Design review panel member and Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Tenney indicated soon afterward that she was “very disappointed” that there wasn’t more teamwork, especially as concerns the AOC.
Carrizosa also rejected an accusation that the design “failed to consider energy-saving designs and mechanisms,” in example citing that “most of the windows are on the east or north.” Is the building energy efficient? “Of course,” Carrizosa replied.
“The building was designed to at least a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver standard of performance.” He said it incorporates features such as ultra-high performance window glass, windows and day-lighting in courtrooms, lobbies and office areas to reduce the need for electric lighting, a provision for connection to a future geothermal-powered heating system, storm water recharge into the soil, and what he called “an extremely efficient and constantly monitored mechanical system.”
Mono County Finance Director Brian Muir said he thinks Mammoth’s staff has made “reasonable efforts,” but that the County has even less input with the AOC than does the Town, and that the law basically says “the state can do whatever it wants” with respect to the courthouse.
The Office of Court Construction and Management (OCCM) leads the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which was created by the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, legislation that shifts governance of California’s courthouses from counties to the state. According to its website, OCCM’s scope of work includes “long-term facilities master planning for trial courts, strategic planning for capital outlay and funding to support new courthouse design and construction, and facility and real estate management for California’s trial and appellate courts.”
“We believe the community will have a courthouse that they will be proud of and will improve access to justice,” Carrizosa concluded. The AOC is also planning a $30 million court building for Inyo County.
One fan of the new building is Sheriff Rick Scholl. “It may look a little out of place for Mammoth, I’ll grant you, but so does the Sierra Center Mall when you get right down to it,” he observed. “If the choice is between the old third floor facility and a modern, state-of-the-art one with more features and that new building smell, I know which one I’m going with.”