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New federal courthouse back on track

September 25, 2018

If all goes as planned, officials will finally get to break ground on a new federal courthouse in February, but it’s still unclear whether the training of hundreds of judges from across the country will continue to be held here, since the facility will no longer have a training center.

Monday, however, it was a time to celebrate.

“This new building will rectify the numerous physical, security and environmental shortcomings that face the (current courthouse) building,” said U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who has led the judiciary’s efforts for a new courthouse for the past 15 years. “We expect construction to begin early next year, and completion in December 2021-January 2022 time frame.”

“Finally!” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, summing up the long wait on the project.

Rodriguez and Nirenberg made their comments at a news conference Monday to announce new details of the project. They were joined by County Judge Nelson Wolff and several members of Congress.

The current John H. Wood U.S. Courthouse is a midcentury landmark and was originally the Confluence Theatre for HemisFair ’68. It has been plagued with problems in recent years, including flea infestations from wild life sneaking into the building, contaminated drinking water, mold, foundation issues and faulty heating and air conditioning.

For years, Congress didn’t allocate funds to pay for a new courthouse. But a series of San Antonio Express-News stories in 2015 on the courthouse’s continuing problems led to efforts by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, and others in San Antonio’s congressional delegation as well as Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, to secure $144 million in a 2016 omnibus spending bill.

Since that funding was secured, however, progress on the courthouse had been stymied — and the size of the planned new building has shrunk — during the contracting process. Austin-based White Construction, the original construction manager, determined that the planned 305,000-square-foot courthouse would cost close to $180 million to build — or about $60 million more than what was budgeted. Of the $144 million, about $117.5 million is for construction. The rest is for site acquisition and design.

The feds and White have since parted ways, and the project was put up for bids again over the past year. The new builder is now Birmingham, Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie.

The footprint is down to 225,127 square feet. The plan calls for a courthouse with inside parking spaces, eight courtrooms and 13 judges’ chambers. It also will house federal public defender and Justice Department offices and an office for a judge from San Antonio who serves on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to information provided by the U.S. General Services Administration and Cuellar.

“Because we had to reduce the square footage from the original design to the present design because of budgetary constraints, we were required to take out some tenant space,” Rodriguez said. “The magistrate judges from across the country all get trained here in San Antonio at various points throughout the year, several hundred a year. It’s very disappointing to me personally that we had to make this decision.

“They are going to have to be trained some place else,” Rodriguez said. “The U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts has not decided where that training will now take place.”

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But Cuellar said he hopes to push for future funding that will help keep judicial training in San Antonio.

“I will make this my No. 1 project for San Antonio,” Cuellar said. “We will do our best to make sure that this training center is not lost to anybody and be kept here.”

The current courthouse and its adjacent training center are being transferred to the city of San Antonio in a swap for what was formerly the city police headquarters on the other side of downtown.

Additionally, Wolff said that the current 600-bed federal jail, the Central Texas Detention Facility, across the street from the new courthouse site, is expected to be razed in two years, making way for potential expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio. The GEO Group, the private contractor that runs the jail, is refurbishing the Bexar County Jail’s old annex building to house federal inmates, according to Wolff and new U.S. Marshal Susan Pamerleau.

Guillermo Contreras covers federal court and immigration news in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | gcontreras@express-news.net | Twitter: @gmaninfedland

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