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Downtown appellate court a ‘gem in the California system’

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The new appellate court recently constructed at Symphony Towers on B Street in Downtown is, according to Presiding Justice Judith McConnell, the finest court she has ever presided over. “California courts have evolved from bland, windowless institutional office rooms to state-of-the-art facilities,” says McConnell, who began her legal career in San Diego in 1969. “The new appellate court is a gem in the California system with an aesthetic form that complements the court’s function.”
Construction at the court — officially called the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One — combines space on four different floors and expands the court’s existing occupancy in the building from 52,254 square feet to 64,379 square feet. Without missing a single session, the court transitioned seamlessly into a “turnkey” facility last December.
David McCurry, a project manager with CB Richard Ellis, began coordinating the construction project on behalf of the state in August 2008. Working closely with the Office of Court Construction and Management, Burger Construction, Gensler Architects and Peggy Jesme of The Irvine Co., McCurry and the project teams developed a 14-month master schedule for design permitting and a three-phase construction schedule to bring the new court online in time for winter 2009 sessions. The project was also constrained by a state-mandated space plan and a firm tenant improvement budget provided by The Irvine Co., which owns the building.
The court required improvements to its existing facility and enhancements to expansion space to accommodate a new courtroom, private attorney offices and support staff workspace. The new court required seating for a minimum of 75 people plus a separate entry and stairwell so justices can access the courtroom while avoiding unnecessary contact with litigants and lawyers with cases before the court. The project’s primary requirement was that the existing court needed to stay operational during construction, which required extensive strategic scheduling.
The project’s first phase built out new office space on Symphony Towers’ second floor. Court employees previously located in existing space relocated to the new offices so work on the second phase could begin.
Phase two included building the new courtroom in expansion space on the third floor and remodeling the office space vacated by employees that moved to the second floor. Construction of the new entry way to the courtroom and interconnecting stairwell bridged phases two and three.
Court functions shifted from the old court to the new facility upon completion of the project’s second phase. The third phase included remodeling the old courtroom on the fifth floor and reworking judges’ chambers on the fourth and constructing additional offices on the fifth floor.
According to McCurry, the project not only had strict scheduling requirements but faced tall challenges as well. “California courts typically incorporate ceilings at least 15 feet tall so the justice bench can be built significantly higher than the floor,” he said. “Height limitations in the building did not permit us to raise the ceiling as high as we wanted, so we had to creatively design the layout to accommodate a lower ceiling.”
Scott Peterson and Jamie Salvo of Gensler Architects designed a dramatic recessed ceiling with paldao wood panel accents, tiered molding and custom recessed light fixtures to create the sense of a higher ceiling.
Additional design techniques were incorporated to enhance the limited clear height including Decoustics Claro ceiling panels at the perimeter of the courtroom and alternating fabric and painted wood panel bays at the perimeter walls to enhance the feeling of space.
After the design was approved, in accordance with the Sacramento-based conceptual plan for California courts, Burger Construction project manager Tim Lockridge and CBRE’s McCurry hammered out a concise construction schedule.
Burt Adams was the onsite superintendent for general contractor Burger Construction. Adams was charged with coordinating material orders and labor schedules to insure that construction progressed smoothly and court operations were never interrupted by the construction.
“We had to balance countless tasks in order to maintain a fully-functioning courthouse through three phases of construction over a 14-month schedule,” Adams said. “The courts couldn’t simply take the day off because the electricity was out.”
The Irvine Co. provided a multi-million dollar tenant improvement allowance based on the court’s lease terms. Nora Freiwald, senior project manager of the Office of Court Construction and Management, oversaw the completion of the project including scheduling and budgeting on behalf of the court. “Our biggest challenge was to spend every tenant improvement allowance dollar and not a penny more to get the best design possible without losing time,” says Freiwald. “The final product provides enhanced security and a quality environment for services to the public, the branch and justice partners, and we didn’t miss a single session.”
“This project had many moving parts that required meticulous attention to detail from everybody involved,” says McCurry. “As a cohesive team we had to keep multiple plates spinning in the air while we kept the court’s wheels rolling.”
All proceedings in the court are open to the public.

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