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Gaining Community Buy-In for Infrastructure Projects

The Brief

This post is the fifth in a series on environmental review and permitting, guest-authored by experts from around the country, and intended to elevate differing perspectives and new ideas. The Bipartisan Policy Center has written extensively about the need for reforms to the federal permitting and environmental review process, outlining where we seeroom for improvement.  

As an infrastructure developer, investor, and asset manager, Meridiam helps build publicly-owned infrastructure around the globe. Each country in which we invest our time, capital, and expertise has environmental and planning statutes that require us to get permits and approvals from our public partners.

In the United States, delays from the environmental review and permitting process are part of doing business. But there are best practices that can make the process work more quickly and productively. By engaging local stakeholders and city officials early on and building close, collaborative ties, the permitting process can be expedited and result in better projects that better meets the needs and desires of community members. Case in point: our Long Beach Courthouse project.

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Project Background

The original courthouse in Long Beach was built in 1959 and housed the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County. By 2006, it had become one of the state’s worst facilitiescourtrooms were crowded, lines were long, escalators were failing, and the safety of court staff and the public was at risk. While the Long Beach Courthouse needed significant repairs and expansion to meet the growing demand for court services in the region, the state of California faced significant budget challenges. Forced to find new ways to address its infrastructure needs, the state legislature, in 2007, authorized the Judicial Council of California to evaluate whether a public-private partnership would be a viable project delivery alternative for replacing the old court building.  

After a thorough analysis of various procurement and financing options, the Judicial Council determined that a public-private partnership using a design-build-finance-operate-maintain approach would provide the best value for the stateThe Judicial Council found that long-term contract with built-in performance standards would be the most cost-effective choice over the full lifecycle of the building. This model, often called performancebased infrastructure, or PBI, is regularly used abroad, but had not been used before for public building in the United States.   

Using the PBI approach, the Judicial Council contracted with Long Beach Judicial Partners, a consortium of private companies led by MeridiamLBJP took on the design, building, financing, operation and maintenance of the new courthouse building and many of the inherent project risksIn the end, the project was completed underbudget and ahead of schedule. 

A modern, spacious, and energy-efficient building opened in 2013 and is now serving the public. The new building houses 31 civil and criminal courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms, a large detention facility, administrative officescommercial retail spaceand a new parking facility. It accommodates 800 employees and up to 4,500 visitors daily.  

Sustainability played a key role in the design of the building. The building originally aimed to achieve LEED Silver certification but ended up achieving LEED Gold certification at no extra cost. This stems from the building’s solar design, energy-saving heating and cooling systems, automated light-harvesting systems, and water-conserving landscaping.  

The PBI arrangement allowed the state to build a much-needed civic building even when the funds were not available upfront. The state paid nothing until the building was occupied and has full ownership of the building and site. The state will continue to pay back the costs of the build, operation cost, and maintenance costs, plus interest, on an annual basis over 35 years.  

Continued operations and maintenance of the facility by LBJP are guaranteed through 2048 without exposing the state to the risks of cost and schedule overruns or the consequences of deferred maintenance. With performance ensured and room for expansion (should it be required), the state should not need another rebuild even far beyond 2048.  

Prioritizing Community Outreach and Engagement

Much of this project’s success depended on early and meaningful engagement with local political leaders and the publicwhich, in turn, minimized any controversy or public opposition.  

From the beginningour team was engaged with the local community to ensure their needs were met and their concerns were addressed. The Administrative Office of the Courts, a staff agency of the Judicial Council of California, was the lead agency for navigating the project through California’s environmental review processWe worked closely with them and Long Beach officials on an environmental impact study that sufficiently addressed all community concerns.  

Community members expressed concerns about controlling construction noise, the location of the building’s public entrance, ensuring the new building did not block sunlight to adjacent buildings, and consistency of the building’s bulk and height with the city’s planned civic center project 

One of our most prominent community stakeholders was Chavez Elementary School, located adjacent to the new building. We worked with representatives of the school to make sure the design of the courthouse did not hinder school traffic or the safety of schoolchildrenconstructing the courthouse’s public entrance to face away from the school. We worked our partners to help fund a safety fence around the school’s playground and engaged the community by inviting students to paint a mural on the construction fence.  

Throughout planning and development, we were intentional about working with the City of Long Beach and the County of Los Angeles on key elements of the project affecting themfrom how to lease office space to the streetscape surrounding the building.  

Key Takeaway

This private-public partnership, led by Meridiam, resulted in a state-of-the-artenergy-efficient, and state-owned courthouse that serves the needs of the court, the state, and the local community. Meridiam worked hard to listen to, understand, and ameliorate the concerns of community stakeholders early on in the project and throughout planning and construction of the courthouse building 

Unnecessary delays in the permitting process cost money for both the public and private sectors. While there is no easy answer to expediting permitting across the board, our experience in Long Beach and other projects globally has proven that a coordinated, collaborative, and inclusive effort to build relationships between private partners, affected stakeholders, public interest groups, and public officials can make a potentially drawn-out and fraught process work better. The system can work quickly when projects have public buy-in, a clear public purpose and benefit, and coordinated engagement.  

James Rubin is the CEO of North America at Meridiam and a member of BPC’s Executive Council on Infrastructure.