No longer needed for inmate transport, underground Long Beach tunnel to be securely fenced off

CJ Dablo/Signal Tribune<br><strong> A downtown Long Beach prisoner-transport tunnel runs between the Long Beach Police Department and the building on Ocean Boulevard that served for many years as the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse until the Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse opened earlier this week. A police department spokesman said that the City will soon install a fence in the tunnel on the border between the two properties in order to block access to the former courthouse. </strong>
CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

It’s just a slab of concrete sunk below downtown Long Beach, but it used to be a major convenience for the City’s police department. A tunnel that runs between the Long Beach Police Department headquarters and the former courthouse at 415 W. Ocean Blvd. will soon be fenced at the border between the two properties, a police official confirmed this week.
The tunnel was a key passageway for the police department to safely ensure that their jail inmates would make it to their day before a judge. For years, jailers used the tunnel to escort inmates who walked from the police department for a few hundred feet along a passageway that led to an elevator to the court building.
Now that a new building for the Los Angeles County Superior Court has opened on Magnolia Avenue, there isn’t much need for a tunnel that leads from the police department to the former courthouse, a largely vacated building.
Last Tuesday, the tunnel stood empty, for the most part. Only a few items along the passage hinted at the stories the shiny concrete walls could tell. There was a small office cabinet that had been discarded along the path. A few blue rubber gloves had been dropped in random corners.
Starting this week, detainees held at the Long Beach Police Department will have to be securely shuttled using two prisoner-transport vans to and from the new Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse on Magnolia Avenue. It will still be a very short distance that the jail inmates will have to travel. The new courthouse is only about a block away from the police department. Perhaps it’s as far as one and a half blocks away, depending on which side of the building an inmate had to enter. Either way, it’s not far.
According to Deputy Chief Laura Farinella, who runs the police department’s support bureau, police used the tunnel to escort about 50 to as many as 70 inmates to the courthouse. In a telephone interview Monday, Farinella acknowledged that the change in jail-inmate-transportation protocol won’t be much trouble for the department.
“I don’t think it will be [an] inconvenience,” Farinella said. “But I do think the tunnel that we currently had in place was an extreme convenience, because you could usually run back if a security officer needed to get something. They could easily come back through the tunnel, not have to get into a car and drive over. But I wouldn’t call the van and transporting this way an inconvenience, by any stretch.”
Farinella said that the annual cost to transport the inmates utilizing two additional security officers and two transport vans has been estimated to be about $250,000 a year.
The decision to use vans instead of tunnels for transporting inmates will save the City of Long Beach a significant amount of money, at least in the immediate future.
Fifth District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske says that it would have cost anywhere between $8 million to $10 million to build the tunnel. She acknowledged in a telephone interview that the new courthouse was designed with the tunnel in mind, but building the tunnel wasn’t pursued early enough by the City. She added that cost wasn’t the only factor, indicating that the tunnel would have to be built under the water table, which would have caused flooding, and she said there were numerous oil and utility lines.
“Had it been…kept in the design, pushed a little earlier by the City of Long Beach, there would have been a tunnel because it was designed that way,” Schipske said. “But, you know, for some reason, the ball was dropped, and it wasn’t pursued until it was so late that it [was] just financially impossible to do it.”
The future of the area’s former courthouse on Ocean Boulevard is uncertain now that the State of California has dissolved the redevelopment program last year.
The City owns the tunnel, Jacqueline Medina, a spokesperson for the City of Long Beach’s Development Services, confirmed this week.
However, since the City of Long Beach must comply with the State’s mandate to dissolve the redevelopment program, there are a lot of questions that have no answers about the future of the vacant courthouse and its tunnel. Medina confirmed that the City’s former redevelopment agency owned the building, and this piece of real estate is part of a long-range property management plan that will be submitted to the State’s Department of Finance in October.
It’s unknown how long the State’s Department of Finance will take to approve the overall property-management plan in order for anyone to really know the final fate of the old courthouse.
Michael Conway, who serves as the director of business and property development for the City of Long Beach, suggests there is a new possibility for the old courthouse. That building is considered part of the “Mega Block,” a 15-acre site in downtown Long Beach that may be a part of a new vision for the civic center.
“We are at the very early stages of identifying a partner to create concept alternatives for developing a new civic center,” Conway said.
He confirmed that once the court has completely moved out of the former building, the property will be secured with life-safety systems in place. The building won’t be used. Conway added that the City is not anticipating any uses for the tunnel that led from the former courthouse building elevator into a hundred or so feet of concrete passageway.
Since the police plan to fence off the tunnel at the border between the two properties, the former courthouse’s side of the tunnel will lead to a dead end. Farinella suggested that the portion of the tunnel that belongs to the police department may eventually be used for storage.
“We will have to gate it up,” Farinella said, “because I don’t know what will be built on the other side of it, and obviously we can’t compromise our safety and security to have access to that tunnel from the opposite side.”

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