The new federal courthouse, designed by local architecture firm Lake Flato, is under construction downtown. Credit: Courtesy / Lake Flato Architects

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez once found himself in an unsecured elevator in the John H. Wood Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown San Antonio with a man he had sentenced years earlier for a terrorist plot to bomb a local high school.

The man taunted him during the brief ride in the elevator but nothing more happened.

Rodriguez still sighs in relief at the memory of the experience. He said it is an example of the kind of problems judges, staff, and law enforcement officers experience every day in the dilapidated old facility and the kind that will cease once a new federal courthouse is completed in April 2022.

“That’s just one example of many I could share with you,” Rodriguez said. “It was unnerving.”

Rodriguez, who has worked for 16 years to gain funding and approval for the courthouse, served as master of ceremonies Monday at the groundbreaking for the new $145 million federal courthouse at 214 W. Nueva St. Site work will begin on the project next month with construction starting in the fall, officials said.

The event was attended by the entire San Antonio Congressional delegation and numerous other local government officials. Attending were U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz; U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Henry Cuellar, Joaquín Castro, Will Hurd, and Chip Roy; Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff; San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg; and Emily Murphy, the administrator of the federal General Services Administration (GSA), which is supervising the project.

“It’s a testament to the importance of this project that you have all of us here,” said Doggett, in whose district the project will be built.

The 6.3-acre lot on Nueva Street between South Flores and South Santa Rosa Streets will become home to the U.S. District Courts for the Western District of Texas, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Magistrate Courts, and offices for the U.S. Clerk of the Court, U.S. Marshals, U.S. Attorneys, U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services, Federal Public Defender, and the GSA in a 225,127-square foot building.
It will include eight courtrooms and 13 chambers.

“The marshals are going to be the main beneficiaries of this project,” Rodriguez said, pointing to the fact that the current federal courthouse has no secure sally port, forcing marshals to bring prisoners in and out of the facility from the sidewalk.

Former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, who is now the U.S. marshal in the Western District of Texas, said the new building will make a world of difference for the safety of everyone who works at the courthouse or visits.

“The (current) facility isn’t built so that it is the best situation for protecting the public or even protecting the prisoners that we have in our custody,” Pamerleau said.

Pamerleau said the new courthouse will allow all marshals and staff to office in the courthouse instead of using both the federal building and the courthouse as they do now.

Rodriguez said a new building also will solve other problems at the courthouse, which was originally constructed in 1968 as the Confluence Theatre for the HemisFair ’68. In recent years, Rodriguez said, judges and workers have dealt with such issues as mold, flea infestations, and lead in the building’s water.

“The building has done its time,” Rodriguez said.

Because it is a federal project, the building’s design will not be subject to review by the City’s Historic and Design Review Committee. It also does not have to adhere to City codes, but a City spokeswoman said efforts are made to communicate with architects and designers to work out any possible problems. It’s helpful that local architect firm Lake Flato is part of the design team.

(from left) Mayor Ron Nirenberg, County Judge Nelson Wolff, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator John Cornyn, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, Congressman Henry Cuellar, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Congressman Julian Castro, Congressman Will Hurd, and Congressman Chip Roy shovel dirt at the future United States Federal Courthouse.
(from left) Mayor Ron Nirenberg, County Judge Nelson Wolff, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, and Reps. Henry Cuellar, Lloyd Doggett, Joaquin Castro, Will Hurd, and Chip Roy shovel dirt at the site of the future federal courthouse. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The GSA awarded a $117.4 million design-and-build contract for the building to Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie last year.

Nirenberg noted that the project will be located adjacent to the planned expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus and will further enhance robust change occurring in and around downtown.

“The new federal courthouse is a spark for transformational change that will enhance this area as a center of government, education, arts, and culture,” Nirenberg said.

Cornyn said when San Antonio leaders, including Rodriguez, came to him for help years ago in seeking a new courthouse, there were seven other federal courthouses in locations around the nation listed ahead of San Antonio on the priority list for funding from Congress.

Cornyn said Sen. John Boozman (R-Arkansas), who chairs a Senate subcommittee that deals with federal courthouse funding, played a large role in helping get the project approved.

“We didn’t just have to move just one mountain,” Cornyn said. “We had to move a mountain range in order to get this done.”

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.