SAN JOSE -- The steel skeleton of the new $230 million family courthouse will soon appear on the downtown skyline, erected by a special crane capable of hoisting the heavy girders of the blast-proof building.
The crane, shipped from Austria to Oakland and recently trucked down here in pieces on 12 tractor-trailers, has its work cut out for it.
Guided by a human operator and monitored by computer, it must lift nearly 5,000 unwieldy pieces of steel -- the equivalent in weight to 28 Boeing 747 airliners or 915 African elephants. The clanking and hammering as beams and columns are bolted together and then welded will be so loud that court officials are discussing a plan to shroud the windows of the nearby Downtown Courthouse in huge gray blankets -- for 14 long weeks.
And the presiding judge of Santa Clara County Superior Court couldn't be happier about it.
"Finally, after dreaming about it for more than 20 years, we're seeing the family courthouse come out of the ground," said Presiding Judge Brian C. Walsh.
Since the 1989 earthquake, cases involving children and families have been crammed into dingy courtrooms in leased buildings, including an old clothing warehouse. Court officials have complained for years that the current courts are inadequate and unsafe to deal with everything from quarreling families going through divorce and custody feuds to troubled youth in dependency courts. Walsh also pointed out that the courts will save money in the long run by eliminating costly leases.
The new eight-story concrete and glass courthouse won't be particularly striking from the outside when it opens in 2016, but it's expected to be light and airy inside, with tall ceilings, lots of windows, a grand staircase and places for children to play.
Wearing a white hard-hat, Walsh joined dozens of passers-by Wednesday to gawk as a crew from San Jose-based Peninsula Crane & Rigging spent more than eight hours carefully linking sections of the crane. Laid out on three closed lanes of Market Street, the black lattice-work structure stretched the length of football field, plus some.
"Quite a sight," said Angus Williams, an Alaska Airlines pilot on a layover in San Jose who happened by. "I've never seen anything like it."
The courthouse is one of many projects under construction in a resurgent Silicon Valley, county Assessor Larry Stone said. Steady, month-over-month declines in unemployment -- from a high of 11.6 percent in 2009 to 5.3 percent in March -- have fueled a building boom in office and multi-family construction not experienced since 2007.
"The result has been the emergence of Silicon Valley's new bird, the construction crane," Stone said, waxing poetic in a news release. "These mechanical birds are crowding the skies from San Jose to Palo Alto in the rush to build new office buildings and apartments."
Seeing the frame of the courthouse take shape has particular meaning for Walsh. His great-grandfather ran a business downtown until the 1950s, when Valley Fair mall was built and downtown fell into a decline it is has yet to fully recover from.
"My great-grandfather started his candy and restaurant business (in 1868) on Market Street just three blocks from here," said the judge, referring to O'Brien's Candy store, "so I am happy to add to the re-energizing of downtown 146 years later."
Making it all happen for the courthouse will be crane operator Chase Miller. Three generations of his family have done the job, though he's the first to be aided in the air-conditioned cab by a computer that displays the angle of the boom, the radius of the crane and even the wind speed. The 29-year-old Vallejo resident earns $44 an hour, has about seven years experience and doesn't take his work lightly.
"Hanging iron is a lot of responsibility," he said. "I'll be going back and forth at a pretty high pace, trying not to kill the guys up there."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.