A Lake|Flato rendering of the $100 million project of the San Antonio Federal Courthouse. Courtesy of Lake|Flato.
Conceptual rendering of the $135 million San Antonio Federal Courthouse project . Image courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

San Antonio’s Congressional delegation is making a bipartisan legislative push to win $135 million in funding for construction of the city’s long-delayed new federal courthouse at 214 W. Nueva St. The move comes amid growing concern about the 50-year-old John H. Wood Federal Courthouse and Spears Training Center at Hemisfair, housed in buildings left over from HemisFair ’68.

The existing federal courthouse occupies a circular-shaped world’s fair pavilion that now poses serious security concerns, is badly overcrowded, and in deteriorating condition. Hemisfair’s neighboring Yanaguana Garden park and children’s playground is scheduled to open Oct. 3. Yet nearby, federal marshals routinely ferry prisoners and witnesses though the same unsecured park areas and courthouse doors used by federal judges, prosecutors, jurors and members of the public. Recent tests showed the building has become a public health risk with a lead-contaminated water supply.

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.

H.R. 3612, an emergency funding bill, was introduced Friday by a bipartisan group led by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-28th District), Lamar Smith (R-21st District), Lloyd Doggett (D-35th District), Will Hurd (R-23rd District) and Joaquín Castro (D-20th District). The emergency filing comes after five years of unsuccessful efforts to win funding through the traditional appropriations process.

“The Wood Courthouse has kept the Western District going for nearly 50 years, but it unfortunately does not have the capacity to support it any longer,” Rep. Cuellar said. “The project to build a new courthouse is deserving of emergency appropriations because of the building’s numerous problems: The building’s water quality, air quality, space, safety and security issues go beyond simple repairs, and I am calling on Congress and the General Services Administration (GSA) to approve the construction of a new courthouse immediately.

Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse. Photo by Rachel Holland.
Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse. Photo by Rachel Holland.

“The current courthouse was designed and built nearly 50 years ago and was not intended for its current purpose. It was designed to be a temporary pavilion for the 1968 World’s Fair. Not surprisingly, the courthouse has serious safety and security concerns. Prisoners are not separated from judges, juries, lawyers, civilians, and staff; they are often walking the same hallways. Water in the building has been found to contain unhealthy levels of lead and iron. Similarly, the HVAC systems leak, have exposed electrical wires and contain asbestos and mold buildup. In addition, much of the building is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The Unfunded Project

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.

“Despite years of our Bexar congressional delegation working together to secure construction funding, we still have a vacant lot where we should have a hall of justice,” Rep. Doggett said. “This year House Republicans have refused to fund new courthouse construction anywhere in the country. Prior to that, the Administrative Office of the Courts unjustifiably downgraded the priority for our courthouse. In these circumstances, this emergency bill may be only a ‘hail Mary’ pass, but I am in favor of throwing it.”

The unfunded project has left federal judges and staff here working in an unsecured environment in a courthouse that sees some of the most violent and dangerous drug cartel defendants come to trial. It’s seemingly insensitive and incongruous that federal judges are exposed to security risks in a building named for the only federal judge ever assassinated in U.S. history. Judge Wood was gunned down outside his Alamo Heights residence on May 29, 1979 by hitman Charles Harrelson in retaliation for his sentencing of El Paso drug trafficker Jimmy Chagra.

“It’s outrageous that some of the most violent drug trafficking and organized crime cases in Texas are being tried in a 1960s movie theatre,” said Rep. Hurd. “The building’s shortcomings pose a serious physical threat to the Federal employees that work there and the increasing numbers of civilians that visit the adjacent playground. The way I see it, the current facility puts the health and safety of San Antonians at risk. Moving the U.S. Federal Court proceedings out of this dangerous and unsecure location is a public safety priority.”

Sen. Richard Shelby Visits San Antonio

Local officials began to sense a possible political opening after meeting with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) during his brief visit here Aug. 31. Sen. Shelby came as the invited guest of the International Bank of Commerce and its President and CEO Dennis Nixon, and Senior Vice President Eddie Aldrete, who oversees “San Antonio Conversations,” an IBC speaking series that brings some of the most prominent national political figures here to speak, and to meet with key business leaders and elected officials.

Shelby had won funding for a new federal courthouse in Mobile, AL, an accomplishment not lost on local officials, who asked for an opportunity to meet with the senator to make the case for the San Antonio federal courthouse, and to seek his help in Washington. The round table meeting at IBC was attended by Sen. Shelby, Aldrete, Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Councilmember Joe Krier (D9), San Antonio Chamber Chairman Henry Cisneros, Walter Cerna, the City’s lobbyist, and others.

Local officials reviewed the project’s history, discussed the complexities of alternative financing, such as a public-private partnership, and sought Shelby’s advice. One attendee said Shelby dismissed any alternative funding mechanisms and said the solution was simple: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) as Senate Whip had the political power to obtain the funding. It was up to San Antonio, Shelby said, to convince Cornyn to make it happen.

That set in motion a quiet campaign to persuade the senior Texas senator to push for the funding in the next fiscal year budget, which will be debated and set over the next few months. Friday’s emergency legislative filing is part of that initiative.

“This is Sen. Cornyn’s chance to do something big for San Antonio,” one attendee said. “We have to convince him how important this is to San Antonio right now.”

“A new federal courthouse is long overdue,” said Mayor Taylor in the press release accompany news of the emergency legislation filing. “The recent water and air quality problems within the Wood Federal Courthouse come on top of long-standing security concerns. We are grateful for Congressman Cuellar’s attention and sponsorship and Congressmen Smith, Castro, Doggett and Hurd for their support as original co-sponsors of this emergency appropriation in FY16.”

The city manager noted the redevelopment possibilities of building a new federal courthouse: “In 2010, the City agreed to swap its former Police Headquarter site for the existing Federal Courthouse site in HemisFair Park. The exchange would be catalytic for two areas of downtown redevelopment; the Park and the Civic Center where the new courthouse would be built. Both the city and federal government are waiting for Congress to fund the construction of the new courthouse in order to close on the transaction.”

Top Image: A Lake|Flato rendering of the $100 million project of the San Antonio Federal Courthouse. Courtesy of Lake|Flato.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.