County takes next step in jail 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. – Contra Costa County has taken its latest step in its quest to demolish the old county jail that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The county has published a notice of preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a document that is required under the California Environmental Quality Act before any action can take place.

“The Contra Costa Public Works Department is working with the Contra Costa County Department of Conservation and Development (DCD) to demolish the existing jailhouse building located at 650 Pine St.,” Lashun Cross, Contra Costa County principal planner, wrote.

The document is available online on the county website, and members of the public, including interested agencies, may comment on the notice through 5 p.m. Dec. 2.

Members of Martinez City Council said Wednesday, Nov. 18, they would urge county officials to extend the comment period.

Councilmember Lara DeLaney said at the meeting she was worried that the council hasn’t put the matter on the agenda, although Councilmember AnaMarie Avila Farias said she had asked the council in September to do just that and had been told the panel would wait for the EIR.

“We haven’t discussed these issues as a council,” DeLaney said, urging a special council meeting should the county be reluctant to extend the comment period.

She also recommended a meeting with county officials, “before their staff proceeds, assuming we’re all on the same page.”

“I prefer we ask for an extension,” Mayor Rob Schroder said.

Also hoping the comment period can be extended is Cheryll Grover, who is among those who have formed the “Save Martinez’s Historical Old Jail” Facebook page.

“County historic buildings are important to everyone, not just Martinez,” Grover said, adding she is worried that Contra Costa County hasn’t recognized the old jail’s historic and architectural significance.

“Once gone, it’s gone forever,” she said. She said those who are hoping to save the old jail believe the building could become a tourist attraction, a site that tells the stories of the characters who were inmates in the jail. Continued maintenance could be funded through tours and a gift shop, she said.

Cross wrote that after the jail’s demolition, its site would be used to expand an existing, seven-space parking lot that exists to the south of the jail. In the future, the site could be used for county administrative purposes, “but no plans or designs have been prepared, and no funding is available for such a future use at this time.”

She wrote that the county’s goals are to reduce the hazards in the “unoccupied, contaminated building” as well as meet some parking needs while remaining compliant with Martinez and Contra Costa County general plans as well as the city’s Downtown Specific Plan. The building is about 17,742 square feet, Cross wrote.

The jail is on a three-tenths acre parcel surrounded by government buildings on three sides as well as parking lots.

Built of Vermont granite, the jail was part of a 1901 construction project that began with the Contra Costa County courthouse. Both were designed to be imposing, classic structures “worthy of the county,” according to documentation that earned the structures inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

However, according to information provided by the National Park Service, inclusion on that register doesn’t protect a building from demolition.

Should a request for removal from that listing be made, a state or federal preservation officer must review that request and the petitioner must reply to that officer’s response. A California historic preservation officer would then make a recommendation to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, who would render a decision on the request.

However, Jay Correia, supervisor of the Registration Unit of the California Office of Historic Preservation and the state’s National Register coordinator, said Contra Costa County doesn’t need to remove the jail from the historic register to have it demolished.

Should the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors decide to proceed, Cross wrote the proposed project would involve “demolition of the existing county jailhouse building and surrounding granite curb separating the existing parking area to the south of the building from the sidewalk, and construction of additional downtown parking.”

Once the jail is gone, its former site would be used to expand an existing parking lot on the south side of the building, Cross wrote. “The expanded parking lot would be paved and striped for up to approximately 15 to 20 parking spaces.”

The existing jailhouse was constructed in 1904 and is within a Historic District. An addition to the jailhouse was completed in 1944, Cross wrote. The jailhouse is currently vacant, with the exception of some obsolete storage, and has not functioned as a jailhouse since 1986, she wrote.

“The jailhouse is currently contaminated with hazardous materials including asbestos and lead-based paint,” she wrote.

Grover said whether the jail building is demolished or undergoes restoration, asbestos would have to be removed prior to any other work.

If the county opted for restoration, the asbestos could be encapsulated, Grover said. She said those restoring or repairing older buildings already have the means to address removal of lead-based paint.

The Contra Costa County Department of Conservation and Development will take the lead in preparing the EIR, Cross wrote.

“The EIR will analyze the impacts of the proposed project,” she wrote. She explained that the county anticipates the project could cause “potential environment effects” to several areas, and those would be addressed in the document.

On Cross’s list are air quality, cultural resources, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous materials, noise, transportation and traffic.

In addition, the EIR is expected to look at cumulative impacts, growth-inducing impacts and alternatives to the county’s preferred project choice.

Cross wrote that the project should have “less-than-significant environmental effects” on aesthetics, plant and animal life, geology, soils, hydrology, water quality, land use and planning.

“The project would not generate any service population, and so would not be expected to result in environmental effects associated with any population-driven impacts, including population and housing and public services and utilities,” she wrote.

Nor is the jail demolition expected to impact any agricultural, forestry or mineral resources. “These are not present on the project site or area,” she wrote.

Before Contra Costa County can proceed with the jail’s demolition, it must obtain a variety of permits, Cross wrote.

The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors must approve the project, as must Contra Costa Environmental Health Division and Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

In addition, the State Water Resources Control Board will require a construction general permit for management of stormwater during construction, and the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board will require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES) stormwater permit.

The notice and its attachments may be seen on the county website, http://www.co.contra-costa.ca.us, by clicking on Departments, Conservation Development and Public Input or on Public Works Department and Environmental Services Public Notices.

Those interested in commenting must send their remarks, observations and questions to Planner Hillary Heard at the Contra Costa County Public Works Department, 255 Glacier Drive, Martinez. Heard is also the person to contact for copies of supporting documents related to the jail demolition project. She is receiving comments by email at hillary.heard@pw.cccounty.us, or may be reached at (925) 313-2022. Deadline for public comment is 5 p.m. Dec. 2.

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