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Fate of old county jail in limbo

County considers demolition

The old county jail, as seen here from the south east corner. (KEVIN MURRAY / Courtesy)
The old county jail, as seen here from the south east corner. (KEVIN MURRAY / Courtesy)
By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – In 1901, the pride of Contra Costa County was its new courthouse and jail, built in Martinez of Vermont granite in an “imposing” classic style that was described as “worthy of the county,” designed “to express Contra Costa’s pride and confidence.”

Those words are from the documents that won the courthouse and jail a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse is bounded by Escobar, Pine, Main and Court streets, and the jail has an entrance facing Pine Street.

But how much longer the granite jail and its 1944 yellow concrete annex will remain in Martinez hasn’t been determined.

“The county is considering the demolition of the old jail,” said Julia R. Bueren, County Director of Public Works. Both the original jail and the newer annex are part of that decision, she said.

County employees are evaluating the jail buildings as part of a larger examination of the county’s vacant and under-used properties, she explained. “We have a large deferred maintenance/capital renewal need that is not funded.”

Part of the evaluation is a look at the historic nature of the old jail as well as its condition, she said.

“The building is not currently acceptable for use,” Bueren explained. “There are concerns about hazardous materials – lead and asbestos.”

Part of the study and evaluation by both staff and county consultants is what type of environmental impact review (EIR) might be required to meet mandates of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“We are expecting it will be a focused EIR, and this will involve a public process,” Bueren said.

CEQA provisions for environmental reviews require both governmental agencies and the public to be informed about a project’s environmental impacts, starting with a notice of preparation that announces the review would be prepared.

Throughout the process, opportunities are given for members of the public to comment in writing and at open meeting hearings.

Their comments and questions must be addressed along the way, according to CEQA mandates.

Even though the old jail is on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service has provisions for a property’s removal, which involves a petition that is reviewed by either the state or federal preservation officer, who is required to respond in writing to the petition. The state historic preservation officer must send the petition and recommendation to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, who would make a decision on the request.

But the county doesn’t have to remove the property from the historic register to proceed with demolition, said Jay Correia, supervisor of the Registration Unit of the California Office of Historic Preservation and the state’s National Register coordinator.

“It’s hard to pull it off the register. There are very narrow rules,” he said.

Should the Board of Supervisors decide the old jail buildings should go, Contra Costa County would need to adhere strictly to CEQA procedures, including providing the public with adequate time to comment, addressing questions and observations and certifying an environmental review.

“It’s easier to leave it on the register and demolish it,” concurred Sean Decourcy, state historian. He called it “disappointing” when local governments own a historic site, don’t maintain it, then choose to have it demolished.

Because the jail is registered as a historic place, the county could transfer it to a private owner to redevelop for a different purpose, he said. A developer could obtain historic reuse tax credits as rebate for up to 20 percent of the costs; low income housing credits could cover another 20 percent if the developer chose that as an option, Decourcy said.

However, he and Correia stressed that neither the state nor federal historic preservation agencies could step in and block the demolition, so long as the Board of Supervisors follow CEQA rules and procedures. Any comments made by state or federal employees or agencies would carry no more – or less – weight than those of other members of the public.

The Board of Supervisors would have a final say on the matter, although a member of the public could file suit afterwards, they said, but a court decision likely would have the County correct and recirculate the EIR.

The old jail, as well as the courthouse, was approved for inclusion on the national register Dec. 28, 1989. The application describes not only the buildings’ physical attributes, but also gives their history, including the removal of the courthouse dome in 1957 after it was damaged by an earthquake, and the 1944 addition of the jail annex.

Prior to the buildings’ construction, the Board of Supervisors studied other cities’ structures and chose a style that suggested justice and strength and an upholding of morals, according to the application. William H. Toepke was its architect.

The county sheriff researched jails, and decided Contra Costa County’s should be “the most modern and finest.” He didn’t get his wish to have the jail on top of the courthouse; instead, it was built alongside, in a harmonious style designed by William S. Mosser, the document said.

The buildings replaced earlier structures that dated to the 1850s. They had been condemned after earthquake damage. Their construction came after Martinez narrowly won the right to continue as the county seat.

Court activities moved to the Hall of Records, built in 1933, and the courthouse was renamed the Finance Building in 1966. Inmates were moved from the old jail long ago.

The application to the National Park Service said of the courthouse: “This fine building, which people felt should be built to last 50 years, is still an impressive structure after almost 90 years and continues to function as a vital part of the center of government for Contra Costa County.”

The jail was originally designed to hold 38 inmates, the application document noted. The older portion had places for booking prisoners into the “most modern cells for its time.” Women had their own cell, and the jail had an “insane ward.”

The annex was built during World War II to accommodate the 200 prisoners that had been placed in the older building at the time.

Consideration of demolishing the annex, at least, isn’t new. The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors looked at the matter in 1988, but at the time decided the 1901 jail building and courthouse should stay, possibly for conversion into a museum.

Their decision spurred seeking of National Register status for the granite structures, and the application lists Retty Maffei and the Contra Costa County Historical Society, then headquartered in Pleasant Hill, as instrumental in its composition and submission.

Neither the Contra Costa County Historical Society nor the Martinez Historical Society had any official comment about the old jail, although some residents who didn’t want to be identified said they were opposed to demolition of the 1901 jail in particular.

The status of the old buildings won’t be changing anytime soon, Bueren said.

“The Board of Supervisors has not taken action on the demolition of the jail,” she said.

4 comments

  1. Based on the intended purpose of this building it is my opinion that an animal shelter would make a great reuse.

    This idea has its roots in a similar building repurposed in AZ.http://www.azcentral.com/story/life/az-narratives/2014/11/01/inside-arpaios-pet-shelter-where-pets-get-new-life–or-life-sentence/18356845/

  2. kristin henderson

    This is a very very well written piece, congratulations.

  3. i am making plans for a multi-use free public non-denominational church. Animal rescues would be an inclusive possibility but not exclusive.

  4. The entrance located on Pine Street is not forward facing and actually faces Escobar Street.

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