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Restoring order in the court

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Property Manager Mike Crank makes his rounds checking the inner workings of the countys 100-year-old Central Courthouse. An open house for the new courthouse plan is set for Jan. 29. From the outside, the Multnomah County Courthouse is just another old building in Portland — a little worse for wear, but with enough historical charm in the form of marble, brass and oak to make up for its inconveniences.

And yet — above the dropped ceilings and on the floors inaccessible to the public, there are caution stickers on ceilings warning of asbestos (but not the harmful airborne kind); lead-coated, shredded wires; corroded sewer pipes; piecemeal flooring, cooling and heating systems; and 100-year-old unreinforced masonry that can’t get wet, lest it come apart at the seams.

“We really baby this building because we know how important it is,” says Mike Crank, the county property manager whose job it is to oversee the courthouse facilities.

The courthouse’s inefficiencies and security hazards are what’s driving county leaders to push forward with siting a new, replacement central courthouse that could break ground as soon as next spring and open to the public in 2020.

“It’s a huge priority,” County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury told the Tribune this week. “I think it’s a complex project and that’s why its been bogged down for 40 years, but we really have to move forward with it.”

Now with a preferred site at the west side of the Hawthorne Bridge, county leaders want to gather public feedback at a Jan. 29 open house, and then another set for Feb. 5.

They’ve already heard from the owner and employees at Veritable Quandary — the quaint, iconic restaurant that leases the county-owned site — saying the plan would force them out of business.

Yet county leaders say the two can live in harmony.

“We’re not going to close down the VQ,” Kafoury says, noting that county leaders have been working closely with the VQ owner. “I’m pretty confident that both can live side by side.”

The new courthouse location is just one of many hurdles that will likely crop up. Funding will be another big one.

“We’ve got preliminary approval in 2013 session for the state to partner with us and contribute up to half of the cost,” Kafoury says. “But we have to go every session and put up our project against every other project in the state. I’m confident that the state will be there for us. It’s definitely a partnership.”

The total cost of a new courthouse may run around $275 million.

The other half of the needed funds will come from other sources, such as bonds the county has been paying but that will soon expire, which will free up some capacity. “It’s not going to be an easy lift for us, but it’s so important,” Kafoury says.

The county’s preferred courthouse site, selected in December, is at the west-side Hawthorne bridgehead. The alternate site is the parking lot between the KOIN Tower and the Marriott Hotel, at what’s referred to as Block 128.

The county board is expected to finalize site plans this spring after a round of public feedback.

Outlived its usefulness

A hundred years ago, the central courthouse, at 1021 S.W. Fourth Avenue, served its users just fine. Built in two phases between 1909 and 1914, it was built in the neoclassical style in concrete and encased steel — the most up-to-date fireproof technique at the time — serving as the county seat and county jail.

Constructed at a cost of $1.6 million, it was the largest courthouse on the West Coast.

Yet starting in the 1950s, it’s been a patchwork quilt of modifications, with new systems, ceilings, lighting, courtroom additions and discontinued use as an overnight jail.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Asbestos and other hazards loom in the underbelly of the Central Courthouse, invisible to the public. Today, the courthouse — placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1979 — has lived beyond much of its original function.

With just one main entrance, off Southwest Fourth Avenue, the line to get into security at certain times of day is famously long, and the steps make it inaccessible to anyone with a wheelchair, walker or cane.

Several times per day, anyone needing handicap accessibility must enter next to the prisoner entrance, at Southwest Fifth Avenue (closed as a public entrance several years ago due to budget cuts). They must press a call button to summon a guard from the front and get wanded for security before entry.

According to the 138-page August 2014 report from the National Center for State Courts, a court’s entryway “should be designed with a sheltered, indoor public entry point where people can queue up for screening out of any inclement weather.”

The report also says:

“A raised command and control center should be established in the lobby area. A separate room near the lobby should be provided for closed-circuit monitoring of public hallways and court areas.”

A new central courthouse will be bigger and designed with many more modern amenities in mind than imagined in 1909.

For instance, it may provide a law library and self-help center, for Internet-based legal research for lawyers and litigants, and to enable electronic filing, the report says.

As for growth, population estimates for the region and court case filings suggest the filings will grow between 5 percent and 27 percent by 2050.

Currently, there are about 50 court staff employees, and future needs are predicted between 54 and 64 positions.

The August report cites 10 planning considerations for a new courthouse, such as flexibity in courtroom assignments; multipurpose juror deliberation rooms; a safe haven for domestic violence victims; and special rooms for conferences or negotiations.

The report cites the possibility of decentralizing services like juvenile court and detention and the district attorney’s office; and offering centralized services like child care (in-house or contracted), bicycle amenities and food service.

Bike amenities for employees could include secure indoor bike storage, space for clothing storage, showers, and easy in and out access. For the public, amenities could include bike corrals and rental share stations.

The current courthouse is 257,000 square feet; a new one would require 390,000 square feet of space; 444,000 with a district attorney’s office.

When it comes to the massive amount of paper records the court system produces, the national consultants recommend consolidating and/or scanning records at three of the four sites where they’re currently kept.

In addition to the courthouse basement — which is filled with stacks of boxes and rows of file cabinets as far as the eye can see — the county leases space to store old records at three other buildings.

County leaders will look for the building to be LEED Gold certified; the county requires future facilities to use sustainable building practices to reduce operation and energy costs.


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The county's Central Courthouse maintenance budget is so tight that property manager Mike Crank spent his own time and money last year to buy four oak benches off Craigslist and refurbished them for one of the courtrooms.

A Crank with a smile

No one comes into the Multnomah County Courthouse happy.

Parking tickets, divorce proceedings, jury duty, court time for victims, holding cells for criminals and evaluations for the mentally ill do not a happy building make.

Except, of course, if you’re Mike Crank, who loves his job more than anything.

Crank — the ironically named property manager for the county — knows every inch of how the 100-year-old courthouse is held together, practically with shoelace and bubblegum.

He knows how to navigate the byzantine utility rooms, hidden staircases, vaults-turned-file rooms, and old water tanks and broken phone lines that were abandoned by past courthouse keepers.

Crank knows when some of the equipment in the sixth-floor mechanical space needs a closer look (“It wasn’t making that sound yesterday”), why the windows need to be kept shut (to keep the pigeons out), and why the building engineers keep a stash of vintage toilet parts — to replace those that fail and are no longer being made, of course.

“We don’t spend any money on the building that we don’t have to,” says Crank, 56, who’s worked for the county since 1998 and wears a huge smile nearly all of the time.

Born and raised in Portland, Crank graduated from Marshall High School and remembers being wowed by the central courthouse when he took a field trip there in grade school. With degrees in environmental science and safety, he’s worked in construction and property management since the 1970s, is going on his 36th wedding anniversary and has two sons and five grandchildren.

Last year, because the county’s maintenance budget is so tight, he spent his own money to buy four solid oak benches off Craigslist and refurbish them in his garage.

He put them in the third-floor hallway, but a judge liked them so much they’re now in her courtroom. “They were only $15 each,” he says. “I thought that was pretty nice that she wanted them in her courtroom.”

Since most of his work happens after-hours, so the maintenance work won’t disturb the public, he knows most of the employees, from the sheriffs in the jail to the court clerks, lawyers, judges and district attorneys.

“Hey hey,” he greets them with a smile in the hallways. Yet he’s hardly a one-man show.

Crank says he couldn’t do his job without the county’s team of skilled engineers, electricians and other property managers who keep the facilities running. “They have to be able to problem-solve,” he says. “We’re always behind the scenes. Everyone expects the lights to come on, the heating and cooling to work.”

While he considers the courthouse his baby, he’s hoping to see a new building sited soon. “They deserve a new building,” he says. “I hope it comes through.”

— Jennifer Anderson

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