Plan narrows possible sites to two in Rockwood

Gresham's new courthouse, the preliminary plans for which commissioners approved this week, will be built in Rockwood.

The East County Justice Facility project plan gives county staff members the go-ahead to begin negotiations to buy one of two potential sites, both of which are within the Rockwood-West Gresham Urban Renewal District.

Those sites include the Oregon Flea Market, in the 18300 block of Southeast Stark Street, and property on the northeast corner of Southeast Stark and East Burnside streets between 189th and 192nd avenues.

The approved plan no longer includes an option to build at the Multnomah County East Building. During a work session on Tuesday, Feb. 13, commissioners deemed it too expensive due to a required parking garage.

Where to put the justice center, which replaces an obsolete courthouse on Powell Boulevard, has proved controversial. Those who want it in Rockwood believe the justice center will stimulate economic development and lower crime rates. Others fear such a structure won't improve the area and will take up valuable property needed to generate taxes for other urban renewal district projects.

Gresham politicians, a sheriff's deputy and a two citizens voiced support for a Rockwood location at the Thursday, Feb. 22, county commissioners' meeting.

'This is a very much-needed project,' said Ron Clemenson, who has lived in East County for 40 years and is vice president of the Centennial Community Association. 'Now my main concern is that it not be delayed any further.'

The justice center concept began three years ago as a plan to replace Gresham's outdated and outgrown one-room courthouse.

Project plans approved on Thursday call for up to four stories to include 36,000 square feet for four courtrooms, plus room for two more; 20,000 square feet for county sheriff's deputies now working out of the condemned Hansen Building off Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street; and 12,000 square feet for Gresham police. The building also will include four temporary holding cells.

Estimated cost of the project is $14.3 million, money that will be raised by the $16.6 million sale of surplus county property in Troutdale next to McMenamin's Edgefield. Gresham has also pledged $2 million for the project if it is sited in Rockwood's urban renewal district.

In light of concerns voiced during a community meeting on Thursday, Feb. 8, the plan calls for building with a 'sensible aesthetic without being ornate.' The structure also will be energy efficient and maximize natural light.

Neither Rockwood site perfectly matches Multnomah County's justice center site requirements.

The Flea Market site is too small and too costly. At 3.7 acres, it's just shy of the 4 acres needed, and would require a $300,000 lease buy-out. This helps push the land acquisition price tag to $4.4 million - more than double the county's cost target of $2 million. But, a possible partnership with neighboring Portland Lutheran School could result in extra land that, when added to the Flea Market site, would total 4 acres.

The other 3.2-acre site also is smaller than 4 acres, but another 0.61 acres on the corner of 192nd and Stark might be available. Other cons include the seven buildings on the site that would have to be demolished, as well as access issues. But the price is right at $2.2 million.

County staff members plan to make a site recommendation in two months. If all goes according to schedule, the building could be open in summer 2009.

Lonnie Roberts, the commissioner who represents East Multnomah County, has tirelessly lobbied for the Gresham justice center - often in the face of strong political opposition.

'I'm ecstatic,' he said after the unanimous plan vote. 'It's coming together. Victory just feels so good on such a fantastic project.'

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