2016 Best Real Estate Projects: Yolo County Woodland Superior Courthouse

October 13, 2016

From the October 13, 2016 issue of
Sacramento Business Journal.

By Lauren Katims

We’re introducing your to our Best Real Estate Projects of the Year. This is the best public project.

In historic Woodland, set among shops and restaurants, sits the new Yolo County Superior Courthouse, a five-story, 163,000 square-foot state-of-the-art building.

With the word “Courthouse” carved large block letters above the entrance, the new building stands out in a cityscape that hasn’t had a substantial civic renovation in 50 years. Some of the surrounding buildings have been standing for nearly a century.

“We wanted a building of significance,” said Shawn Landry, the court’s CEO, who was intimately involved with the planning, architecture and construction. “We didn’t want a modern, commercial building.”

Each design aspect was created with intention. For example, the curved façade of the building, which faces Main Street, is meant to symbolize open arms for a welcoming feel. A four-pillar portico that covers the entrance to the building is reminiscent of the World War I-era courthouse that the new one replaces.

The building has a granite base and natural color palette that convey a sense of permanence and timelessness.

“The architects really rose to the occasion and got it right,” Landry said.

With 14 courtrooms, the Woodland courthouse handles civil, probate, juvenile, family, felony and misdemeanor cases for Yolo County. The county currently has a population of more than 200,000; that’s expected to double by 2050.

Decades ago, the county outgrew the old Woodland courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To accommodate for the space shortage, the court took over five other facilities around the city. Although the extra space helped, it created significant functionality and security issues.

Sacramento-based Dreyfuss & Blackford Architecture partnered with Denver-based Fentress Architects, both with extensive court design experience in California, to win the bid for the project when planning started nearly a decade ago.

Inspiration for the new design came from observing other courthouses’ successes and failures, but also from the unsatisfactory conditions that the county had been dealing with for so many years, said Presiding Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg.

The main threat was security. Inmates, victims, judges, attorneys and jurors were sharing the same hallway. Before a trial, the accused would be chained together walking toward the courtroom. Deputies would announce they were coming, and everyone else would have to shuffle to one side of the hallway and stay close to the wall.

“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” said the court’s Landry.

Limited space also was an issue. Some staff members were forced to use wiring closets as offices. There were no public bathrooms on the first floor, no air conditioning in public areas, and no space for private conference rooms for lawyers to meet with victims and witnesses.

The situation was so bad that the California Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the California court system, ranked it an “immediate need” and placed Yolo County among the top three high-priority cases in the state, Rosenberg said.

Soon after, in 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure that would provide up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bond funding for new and renovated courthouses. Instead of using the state’s general fund or local taxes, the funds are collected through court fees, criminal penalties and assessments, parking offense penalties, and civil filing fees.The bonds will be repaid over 25 years, according to the California courts’ website.

The Woodland courthouse is one of the first new construction projects funded by the Senate bill to reach completion.

The old courthouse had gone through a series of renovations over the years, but an overhaul of the magnitude needed would have been more costly than building new, Landry said.

The new courthouse is built on a 3-acre site in the downtown area. The Woodland Redevelopment Agency expedited the state’s purchase of the land by assembling various properties on the block and then selling the land to the state.

The Judicial Council also purchased two sites close to the courthouse from the Union Pacific Railroad to be used as free public parking lots — a rare perk for a downtown courthouse, Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg had the idea to build up multiple stories instead of spreading out, so there’d be plenty of space on-site for staff parking. Those parking lots can eventually be converted into more courthouse space as the county grows, he said.

The building was designed so the heavy-traffic areas, such as jury orientation and clerk counters, are located on the first floor for easy public access. Family law and juvenile court rooms are on the second floor, which includes a play area for kids while their parents fill out paperwork.

The entire third floor is administrative offices, which eventually can be converted into courtrooms. Criminal courtrooms are located on the top two floors.

One floor underground, the basement holds inmates waiting for hearings.

There are many factors to consider: judges and jurors need to have clear views of the witness stand, judges need elevated seating for face-to-face-conversations, and clerks and judges need to pass files and paperwork back and forth with ease, said Jenny Li, project architect with Dreyfuss + Blackford.

The design first was digitally modeled. After getting approval, Landry and his team created a life-size plywood mock-up in a local warehouse, so judges and staff could physically test what worked and what needed to be altered.

The mock-up was so successful that architects and judges from several other courts visited and adopted the layout for their courthouse projects, Li said.

The Yolo County courtrooms are now included in the templates for the state of California best courtroom practices.

The lobby was the other major area of focus. Because courthouses can tend to have a mysterious or intimidating feel, the lobby is constructed largely of clear glass.

“We wanted to have a look of transparency,” Landry said.

The expansive windows and skylight double as a sustainable feature that reduces the need for electrical lighting. Focusing on energy-efficient design was a priority for developers, said Landry.

As much as security and sustainability were focal points, equally important was a pleasant experience for the public, Rosenberg said.

Charging stations in the lobby and Wi-Fi throughout the building allow jurors, attorneys and civilians to connect anywhere in the courthouse. Self-serve kiosks at the entrance give customers a service ticket after they input their reason for visiting.

“It’s nice on the front end because there aren’t a huge amount of lines,” said Landry. Average wait time is 8.5 minutes. And people can handle traffic tickets and pay fines without ever entering the building.

On the back end, court staff can see through a Qmatic system how many people are waiting, what they are waiting for and then make adjustments accordingly.

“The courthouse is really bringing life and energy back to this community,” said Li, noting the hotel, theater and music venues coming to town. “It’s revitalizing the neighborhood.”

Fast Facts

Location: 1000 Main St., Woodland

Size: 163,000 square feet

Completion date: Summer 2015

Total cost: $139 million

Developer: Judicial Council of California

General contractor: Hensel Phelps Construction

Architect: Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture, Fentress Architects

Engineers: Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineers Inc., Capital Engineering Consultants Inc., The Engineering Enterprise

Subscribe to learn about our latest projects, news + updates.