Where's our new federal courthouse?

Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 11:45pm
federal-courthouse.jpg

The block at the intersection of Seventh and Church is unremarkable. Like so many other downtown areas that have yet to be tapped with the magic wand of revitalization, it has found life providing parking. A parking tower dominates the block, and an outdoor lot fronts Church Street.

Well-positioned, down the hill from the state Capitol and adjacent to the glistening downtown library, Seventh and Church is ripe for the kind of infill project Mayor Karl Dean advocates. And it’s the kind of real estate where people walk by and think, “This would be a good place for … something.”

But in the case of Seventh and Church, there’s no mystery about what it could be.

For years, the federal General Services Administration has known it as the place for Nashville’s new $183 million federal courthouse, to replace the 57-year-old Estes Kefauver Federal Courthouse two blocks south at Seventh and Broadway.

A monument to post-war utilitarian architecture, the Estes Kefauver Federal Courthouse controls the intersection it shares with its much more architecturally charming neighbors — the old Customs House and the castle-like Hume-Fogg Academic High School.

By all accounts, the courthouse is outdated and desperately in need of replacement. A steep increase in cases over the last half-century and post-Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 security regulations have made the building crowded. Needed upgrades to technology infrastructure are next to impossible. Staff from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court reside across the street in the Customs House, and space in that 134-year-old building is getting a $150,000 upgrade to better serve the staff.

None of this is new.

In 2000, obviously pre-9/11, then-Rep. Bob Clement — whose Nashville district office was in Kefauver — testified before a House subcommittee, saying that the courthouse was crowded, leases were expensive and growth was coming to the area. Clement said it was time to act.

“Timing is of the essence, and I am very concerned that with too much delay, this project could be seriously jeopardized. Due to the continuing development in the area surrounding the courthouses, the location of a suitable site will become increasingly difficult and costly as long and the longer we delay this project. Simply put, it is going to get very hard to find available, affordable property for site location and acquisition,” he said. “We as taxpayers and those of us who serve on this committee know that you have got to move when the opportunity presents itself, and the opportunity is now.”

The bugaboo of congressional appropriations

Even then, a new federal courthouse for Nashville was on the priority list for replacement from the Judicial Conference — and it tops that list today. Clement might have inspired the right people with his testimony, because the next budget — fiscal year 2002 — included $14.7 million for the project’s design and early site work. Nationally known architect Michael Graves rolled out the design — a curvy, seven-floor, 358,372-square-foot structure, complete with all the security bells and whistles and desperately needed extra space.

Another $7 million was included two years later for some other early engineering work, but then the Nashville project fell off the federal budget and has yet to return.

In the ensuing years, Tennessee’s legislative power was on the rise — Sen. Bill Frist, whose name will grace the building, was Senate majority leader from 2003 until his retirement in 2007. Just as Frist headed back to Tennessee, Rep. Jim Cooper became one of the first Southern Democrats to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency. Tennessee had serious legislative clout, the kind needed to grease the wheels to get a $183 million federal project off the ground.

And yet Seventh and Church is still a parking lot, even though early projections had it scheduled to be built, complete and open for business in June 2008.

Why?

The short answer is that bugaboo of congressional appropriation — the dreaded earmark.

GSA only has a certain number of dollars per year with which to build courthouses, and the agency can generate all the long-term plans it wants. (Nashville, again, has appeared at some position on GSA’s replacement list for nearly a decade.) But if a representative wants it for his or her district, an earmark request is often all it takes to get it done.

And, famously, of course, Cooper is vehemently opposed to earmarks. He issues an annual statement once the House begins vetting the budget, stating his distaste for the practice. This year’s statement pointedly noted that the lack of a new federal building was in large part because of earmarking.

“I’ve been working with colleagues to address the backlog of federal courthouses that are ready to be built around the country,” Cooper said. “In Nashville, we have a courthouse project that’s shovel-ready and long overdue; it just needs funding. I’d rather see Congress spend taxpayer money on that project before we dole out any more earmarks.” His phrase “shovel-ready” raises yet another question: Why was the project was left out of the recently passed stimulus package, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?

It wasn’t — at least not originally.

The original draft of the stimulus legislation, in both House and Senate versions, indeed included the money to build the courthouse, but the legislative wrangling of the conference committee deleted the project from the final draft signed by the president. Interestingly, Cooper voted against the first version, but voted for the second.

No one really knows what happened to the money for Nashville. Other courthouse projects — in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego — stayed in the stimulus, but Nashville was bumped, the money instead going to help build a new Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Even Cooper still doesn’t know why the Nashville project disappeared back in the spring.

“A lot people don’t play fair,” he told The City Paper with a verbal shoulder shrug.

So the lot still sits empty, but for the cars and the increasingly failing facades of surrounding buildings.

Reason for hope

There may yet be hope, though. As Cooper indicated to The City Paper in April, the prospects for completion of the $183 million courthouse have improved — Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Lincoln Davis, whose district is served by the Nashville courts, now sit on their respective chambers’ appropriation committees.

“Every little bit helps,” Cooper said.

And, indeed on GSA’s list of replacement projects, as approved by the Judicial Conference, Nashville sits as No. 1 on the courthouse project list for fiscal year 2011, helping the prospects. While the Judicial Conference and GSA recommendations certainly offer a framework and strong suggestion when it comes to federal building project appropriations, there’s no telling what will happen once Congress begins the 2011 budget process early next spring.

Being first on the list helps Nashville’s case, but it’s still no guarantee — as Cooper likes to point out, federal projects are not always decided on the merits.

“We remain hopeful for 2011. … There are a lot of folks who like to jump the line, but it sure helps. There’s no substitute for being No. 1,” he said.

Cooper, along with Rep. Jo Bonner, an Alabama Republican, started the Congressional Courthouse Caucus to lobby colleagues to stop earmarking federal courthouse projects.

“We try to return order to the process to get members allocating where there’s the greatest need, not the greatest number of electoral votes. We’ve restored some order to the process, but you’ll probably never eliminate politics from Congress. If nothing else, it makes people feel guilty. It publicizes the Judicial Conference’s list and makes it easier to highlight where this is happening,” he said.

There’s not likely to be any new word on the fate of the courthouse until federal budget talks ramp up next spring. Meanwhile, the block at Seventh and Church still sits — its future, its name and its look all known.

“It’s going to come someday,” Cooper said.

We’ve heard that before.

12 Comments on this post:

By: shinestx on 12/7/09 at 7:10

Finally, someone in the local media asks this question!!! Eight months after the pork-ulus was passed by the Dem-wits. Is the answer still a mystery to anyone in Nashville? Duh!!?!? Three reasons why: 1. Tennessee is a right-to-work state, and the B.O. administration does not intend for non-union laborers to get big federal projects, regardless of how much they may be needed ("Shovel Ready" LOL); 2. The Porkulus was all about Dem-wit political patronage, and Jim "Stupor" Cooper has no clout, despite his early endorsement of B.O. (look what it got him); and 3. The building was to be named after a Republican, Frist (who was a dismal Senate majority leader, but regardless) and the B.O.s are opposed to anything that would be named after a Republican.

Now, let's get to the bottom of how this project has languished. Where was the local media when the money was being handed out? Where was Jim "Stupor"? What was the B.O. administration's response to these questions (never asked of course)?

How embarrassing must it be to Jim "Stupor" to have another Congressman (from the same party) and the state's senator from the other party now being employed to get this project started?

I leave you with Jim "Stupor's" own words:

Even Cooper still doesn’t know why the Nashville project disappeared back in the spring.

“A lot people don’t play fair,” he told The City Paper with a verbal shoulder shrug.

Geez, and the people of Nashville keep electing this empty-suit with a scowl? I guess Nashville has exactly what it deserves... bupkiss.

By: shinestx on 12/7/09 at 7:20

BTW: Thank you, J.R., for asking these questions... and getting us the scoop. I suspect we'd never get the same clarity from the other paper. They're in Jim "Stupor's" camp all the way.

By: govskeptic on 12/7/09 at 7:48

This project has been ongoing through a Tenn. V. Pres.
of the U.S. as well as a Senate Majority leader, I still
ask myself what good did either do for OUR state?
First, we need to drop the proposed name for this
facility and hold that off for later, and then it become
a group priority for our delegation making sure it has
all the elements for "shovel ready" for the next stimulus
which may come in the spring.

By: shinestx on 12/7/09 at 8:20

I would agree with the first part, govskeptic... except there should be no "stimulus"... as that's part of the problem. WIth all the earmarks (funny how Jim Stupor gets cost-conscious when it comes to an actual project that is needed)... a courthouse in Nashville, which the Democrats do not need to convince to vote for them time and time again, will not get the funds then either. That's why I disagree with the second part... that it should be in a stimulus (part 2). Federal courthouses should be in the judicial budget (not GSA) and based on need. Stupor is at least right about that... but unfortunately, he has no clout in a party of corrupt big-spenders.

By: NewYorker1 on 12/7/09 at 4:05

It has always fascinated me to read people's comments who have all the answers, but they are never in a political office or running for one.

By: airvols on 12/7/09 at 4:26

To many Republicans and not enough Democrats is the reason. The Democrat we have can't get it done and in the State Democratic Party looks like little Orpan Annie in it's current state. That is exactly what's wrong with our political system today.

By: shinestx on 12/7/09 at 5:32

Airvols, have you noticed which party is in the majority?

By: JUDYBOODO on 12/7/09 at 8:05

Well let someone comment that has a little first hand knowledge of this boondoggle. I was a property owner in the block in question. Before the decision was made for the location of the courthouse there was a debate where it should go, the Thermal site, the block in question or some other site. The GSA representatives called on me as well as the other property owners. They wanted to know if they chose our block what kind of resistance we would put up. It was all a moot point really because they had the power of eminent domain in their back pocket. But as they told me, "they would like to not have to use it if they didn't have to, just for appearance sake". But in a vain effort to try to convince them that other sites were better suited for their project I drove two of them around Nashville for two days. Now they will say that it really wasn't their decision they just make recommendations.This is probably true but I think their word goes a long way. Anyway while spending time in the car with these gentlemen they told me that their first site choice was where the Municipal Auditorium is located. You know the facility that has lost money for years and is only good for the Harlem Globetrotters and Bull Riding competitions. But, they said the city government would not even talk to them about the site. Period. They said their guidelines stated that they should not take any city property unless it was agreed upon and not to take any church property unless it was absolutely necessary. Now the really sad part of this story aside from many property owners losing their businesses and income was that the then current administration of Purcell did nothing to convince the GSA to use a site that did not produce any property tax income for Nashville. He didn't even send a representative to the public meeting. Just think of the property taxes that block of downtown property generated, I know my parcel which had been in my family for 60 years was good for about 10 thousand per year! And each and every year that the federal government owns the land their is no property taxes paid to the county. The next time city government tell you they don't have enough money for the things they want to do for you, ask why they didn't try to get a federal courthouse on less expensive land. Or on land that already didn't pay property taxes.There was talk on the street that politics and influence was used for decision making purposes, that one of the large property owners really didn't mind selling his property. Strangely enough he still runs his business on the land that the government owns but most of us were told to take the money offered and go away. Just a first hand real life story of how government is here and wants to help. Money appropriated to buy the land by a Republican Congress but none set aside to actually build the structure. Now we have a Democratic Congress, what are the odds it will ever be built? Meanwhile no taxes generated each year.

By: shinestx on 12/7/09 at 8:38

Oy, we could rip this whole topic to shreds. Thanks for that back story, Judy. Anytime the government gets involved, things get f**ked up pretty quickly... can't wait for healthcare! Anywhoooo, we could even talk about how absolutely ugly the rendering for this building is.... but some group of judges, led by a Judge Echols, probably threw darts at a board... or saw some stupid looking columns that reminded them of the Parthenon, and voila'!!! we have an Embassy Suites on Church Street. So, you are absolutely correct in the dismal words about anything that the government does in the name of "help". So, this thing was supposed to be built five years ago. The first order of business is that the Frist name must be kept off this buildlng (and I'm a conservative, sometime-Republican who cannot stand mindless liberals!!!) So, if/when this building ever gets built, it will not be because of Bill Frist, G.W. Bush, Jim "Stupor", or Bill Purcell. I do think that if Dean, Alexander, Corker, and/or Davis make this a priority, it has the best chances of getting built.

By: thetruthwillset... on 12/7/09 at 10:26

shinestx - I have a hard time following your logic. You seem to be saying two opposing things at the same time: (1) stimulus is bad and is just a pork fest; (2) Cooper is bad because he can't get us pork. Fortunately for you, this is a pretty common view among voters across the country - they don't like "pork" in the abstract, but they like the projects that come to their hometown. If you have folks all over the country with that view, what do you get - lots of members of Congress looking to keep people like you happy by proving they have "clout" by bringing home the bacon. Congratulations! With your logic you'll be in the business of complaining about this situation for many years to come.

By: shinestx on 12/8/09 at 7:16

Let's see if I can make this a bit more easy to understand: I DO NOT THINK THE COURTHOUSE PROJECT IS PORK!!! In fact, anyone who has worked, visited, or passed through the current Kefauver Building can easily see that the building is woefully outdated and extremely crowded. Sometimes, people think they are informed when they "read" an article or comment. If you go back and see my point, you will (possibly!) notice that I advocate making the courthouse expenditures part of the DOJ budget, instead of the patronage-based GSA system in place now... so we wouldn't have to rely on Jim "Stupor". I lived in Atlanta fifteen years ago, and their Congressman John Lewis was awarded a "Taj Mahal" of a courthouse that was placed quite carefully, and expensively ($300M in 1992!!!) in the shell of the historic Rich's Department store. Five years later (after OKC), the Feds awarded that same courthouse another $100M to upgrade security. When the politics of "blue states" trump projects that have sat on a Critical Needs project simply because the "blue" party is in charge (remember, it will flip-flop again). If you want to find an illogical position on this topic, you only need to look at Jim "Stupor's" position... where he voted against funding when this courthouse was earmarked, but voted for the ultimate pork-laden bill when this (and other) courthouses were left out of earmarks. Huh!!! Now, just go back to my first point in this post, and (hopefully) you'll now understand.

By: govskeptic on 12/8/09 at 8:55

What a way to run a train!