If the proposed $1.1 trillion federal budget for 2016 passes through the U.S. House and Senate this weekend, San Antonio will receive $135 million to build a the long-awaited new federal courthouse on a vacant square block of West Nueva Street, which would clear the way to vacate the rundown, at times flea-infested John H. Wood Federal Courthouse that was originally constructed as movie pavilion for HemisFair ’68.
The fate of the world’s fair-era former cinema remains to be decided and could pit preservationists against those who want to see the southern edge of Hemisfair be opened to new development. Mayor Ivy Taylor, who held a Wednesday morning press conference to trumpet the $135 million in likely funding, answered “yes” when a reporter asked if she wanted to see the building razed.
The budget deal, which raises spending and the national deficit through tax breaks and allows for more project funding than anticipated, is set to go before the Senate and House for a vote this weekend and would then go to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature. The deal was hammered out by both Democrats and Republicans and is expected to pass and be signed.
A new courthouse would provide federal judges, prosecutor and other federal workers a safer, more secure and healthier work environment, in contrast to the existing facility where violent felons, extradited cartel hitmen and leaders and others are escorted in elevators and in close proximity with federal workers and members of the public. The building itself is highly vulnerable to attack and is too outmoded to be secured to existing federal standards.
Funding the completion of the design and the construction of the new courthouse would have a direct positive impact on two of the major downtown redevelopment projects, one already underway, the other in the planning stages: Hemisfair Park redevelopment and the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that this will happen over the course of the weekend,” Mayor Taylor said at the press conference. Details about the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill were released late Tuesday night after weeks of negotiations between Republican and Democrat legislators crafting the deal.
The proposed budget includes $947 million for eight pending federal courthouse projects across the country. The San Antonio project is eighth on the list.
“Funding for a new federal courthouse has been the City’s top priority for several years now,” Taylor said, noting the many trips to the nation’s capitol made by local officials to lobby for the funding over the last five years. Taylor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez returned from one such trip just a few days ago.
The New Federal Courthouse
There is about $3 billion in the General Service Administration’s Federal Buildings Fund, but disputes between the GSA and Congress have led to billions in back-logged repairs to existing federal buildings and a long list of unfunded building projects. That includes a list of unfunded new federal courthouses. The sprawling Western District of Texas with its seat in San Antonio arguably has the greatest need in terms of case backlog, security concerns and overcrowding. The district covers nearly 92,000 square miles and has divisions in Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, Pecos and Waco.
Yet the San Antonio project ranks only eighth on a priority list of federal courthouse projects maintained by the Justice Department’s Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, according to the bipartisan delegation that filed Friday’s bill.
Officials are frustrated by the passage of five years since August 2010 when City and GSA officials agreed to a property swap that has yet to close: The federal government would get the downtown block along West Nueva Street where the City’s former police headquarters stood, worth $14 million, and the City would acquire ownership of the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse and Spears Training Center on the southern edge of Hemisfair, worth $9 million. When the deal closed, the GSA would pay the City the $5 million difference. The City then constructed the new Public Safety Headquarters at 315 S. Santa Rosa St. and razed the old headquarters to make way for the new federal courthouse.
Lake/Flato was hired to design the new building and produced a preliminary design that features an interior courtyard and situates the building on San Pedro Creek, which will be redeveloped into a pedestrian amenity and linear park by 2018. Several years went by without approved funding for construction, and in 2013 the GSA brought design work to a halt, leaving the project only 50% designed. The project was originally estimated to cost $100 million, but construction costs continue to rise and the GSA now estimates it will take $135 million to complete the new courthouse. Others say that figure is probably inadequate due to rising materials and labor costs.
The Existing federal Courthouse
Built for HemisFair ’68, the building was meant to be a pavilion. When the world’s fair building was first remodeled to serve as the federal courthouse it was used by two federal judges and 24 staff members. Today there are seven federal judges and 280 staff members and federal employees. In addition to its inadequate security features, the building has problems with asbestos, mold, structural damage, and water quality. The courthouse on E. César E. Chávez Boulevard is named for Federal District Judge John H. Wood, who was assassinated in 1979 by Charles Harrelson, a contract killer hired by El Paso drug dealer Jimmy Chagra who was awaiting trial in Wood’s court. The judge earned the nickname “Maximum John” for his harsh sentences on drug dealers.
“We owe it as citizens to provide our judges (and jurors, witnesses, and staff) with the safest possible facility,” said Councilman Joe Krier (D10). “They are dealing with some of the worst criminals that this country has ever seen.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-San Antonio) were credited by City and County officials with leading the bipartisan charge in Congress to get San Antonio on the list.
“The inclusion of the funding for a new federal courthouse will allow for better administration of justice as the current building was never intended for this purpose,” Rep. Cuellar stated in a news release.
Mayor Taylor and others applauded the rare show of bipartisanship.
“Prisoners were never expected in the mass numbers that we now face,” said U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who started the federal judiciary’s push for a new facility nearly a decade ago.
“We’ve got security issues that still remain, we’ve had lead in the water – (U.S. General Services Administration) has partly remedied that situation now, we’ve had our third infestation of fleas, and we have continuing HVAC system difficulties,” Judge Rodriguez said, thanking Cuellar, Cornyn, as well as City and County officials for making the courthouse funding a priority.
“It’s not a done deal,” he added. “But we’re very hopeful.”
It’s been more than five years since City and federal officials agreed on a land swap that cleared the way for such development. Under the agreement, the federal government would get the now-vacant, $14 million downtown block along West Nueva Street where the City’s former police headquarters stood to build the new courthouse, and the City would acquire ownership of the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse and Spears Training Center on the southern edge of Hemisfair, worth $9 million.
If the deal is approved, Mayor Taylor said, she will move for both the courthouse and training center to be demolished. Taylor’s preliminary expectation is that the land will become home to mixed-use developments that would compliment Hemisfair’s own housing and commercial developments and parkland.
Official master plans for Hemisfair’s multi-million dollar redevelopment have yet to include the property, currently owned by the federal government.
The new courthouse, just west of downtown, would essentially rest on the banks of San Pedro Creek, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and all the necessary pieces are coming into place that would allow the courthouse to be built and the adjacent privately-operated federal prison, owned by the county and leased to GEO Group Inc., to be moved further west.
The San Pedro Creek Improvements Project aims to transform an urban ditch into a linear park by May 2018, but its proximity to the private prison was troublesome for many stakeholders.
“We finally reached an agreement with (GEO) and with the sheriff to move them over to another older facility … to the County jail in the near-Westside,” Wolff said. “We’ve got to fix that one up first.”
That will take approximately 2-3 years, he estimated, “so it ties in pretty well with the building of the courthouse and the creek itself. … We were worried about this because it’s a timing issue. What are we going to do there? We didn’t know if (the courthouse) was coming or not. Now we know it’s coming – assuming the bill passes.”
Wolff also credited U.S. Sen. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) for his help at the federal level.
“This accomplishment is a real win for the people of San Antonio and has significant impacts on the city’s immediate future including security, economic development, and tourism,” Hurd stated in a press release. “I’m glad I was able to help drive a big-picture initiative for my hometown.”
The press conference concluded with Mayor Taylor’s call for citizens to contact their Congressional representatives to voice their support for the new federal courthouse.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the courthouse was intended to be a temporary structure. Documents provided by Beth Standifird reveal that it was to be utilized after HemisFair ’68 concluded, and research conducted by Maria Pfeiffer shows that the building was intended to be permanent.
*Top image: Conceptual rendering of the $135 million San Antonio Federal Courthouse project . Image courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.