Back from the Dead

Back from the Dead

Perkins + Will’s original design for the courthouse was scrapped more than five years ago.
Courtesy Perkins + Will

One of Los Angeles’ most unsightly holes in the ground is finally ready to be filled.

The General Service Administration last week revealed plans to move forward with its long-awaited federal building downtown, announcing that the bid is out for a design-build contract for a new federal courthouse at the corner of 1st and Broadway. The pit, across the street from the LA Times building and City Hall, has been unoccupied since 2007. Plans for a new courthouse—including designs by Perkins + Will that were abandoned—have been in the works since 2000, when a judicial conference projected growth in the number of federal judges needed in Los Angeles. The new Request for Qualifications (RFQ) will be launched on February 6 and dramatically reduces the scale of earlier designs.

Perkins+Will’s design called for a modern interpretation of traditional American courthouse design.

The project’s new life came in spite of staunch opposition from key congressional leaders and years of languishing in neglect, with only puddles and passing wildlife as tenants. The project spent much of 2011 in the crosshairs of Congressman Jeff Denham, who represents California’s 19th Congressional District, surrounding Fresno. Calling the project an unnecessary waste, and citing reports that the promised increase in the number of federal judges in Los Angeles had failed to materialize, Denham introduced HR 1734 (also known as the Civilian Property Realignment Act), which would have required the sale of the property. Although the bill passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in October, it had yet to reach the House floor before the GSA announcement.

At a November Congressional hearing spearheaded by Denham, several members of Congress suggested that moving the project forward would require reauthorization from Congress. But according to a GSA spokesperson 19 members of the California congressional delegation wrote the GSA after the hearing to express strong support for the project. Subsequently, GSA General Counsel and other Congressional and Obama administration leaders decided that the project could move forward with only a “notification of the significant changes to the project.”

According to GSA Regional Administrator Ruth Cox, the opportunity to move the project forward resulted from advantageous political and economic factors: “Throughout this process GSA and the Courts worked closely together and have achieved a solution that is advantageous for all parties, while keeping within the existing appropriated funds,” said Cox. “The project will take advantage of favorable market conditions, recognize substantial savings for taxpayers, create jobs, and deliver a state-of-the-art courthouse that will make Californians proud."


The original design called for a dramatic curving facade and atrium.

The project has already teased the public and architects alike with the potential for a new architectural amenity in the city. In 2005, Perkins+Will presented a conceptual design for a 17-story building that would provide what they called a “shining example of sustainable design innovation.” The design featured a curving facade, a large atrium, and a synthesis of four components of traditional American courthouse design: the portal, the column, the rotunda, and the cupola. Rising costs (estimates reached $1.1 billion) killed that plan, and the GSA re-solicited design proposals in March of 2006. The GSA cancelled that solicitation, according to a GSA spokesperson, due to “lack of competition.” The GSA declined requests to elaborate on what exactly “lack of competition” meant.

Funds for $366.45 million of the original $400 million intended for the project remain available (the GSA has already spent $16.9 million acquiring the site and $16.3 million on the now defunct designs). The new, scaled-back proposal as described by the GSA, calls for a 600,000 square foot building, including 110 on-site parking spaces, 24 courtrooms, and 32 judges’ chambers, with a budget set at $322 million. The solicitation also explains that the new courthouse “must express solemnity, integrity, rigor and fairness” and be occupied no later than March 2016. After its RFQ process is complete, the GSA plans to shortlist three teams and subsequently issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to choose the winner.

The rebirth of the Downtown Los Angeles project is not an indicator of a new stimulus-variety building program by the GSA. In fact at the end of December, President Obama signed the Financial Services Appropriations bill for 2012, which includes only $50 million for GSA construction projects and $280 million for maintenance and repairs at existing facilities (compare that to the 2011 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which provided $492.7 million for construction and $500 million for repair of federal buildings and courthouses), leaving GSA projects as a tenuous source of business at best for the foreseeable future. GSA representatives would not comment on which projects will be funded by the current budget (the Los Angeles federal courthouse project is not included in 2012 appropriations), but said they are working closely with the Obama Administration to set capital priorities for the remainder of this year.