Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) was recognized Wednesday for his work in helping secure the necessary funds – a little more than $144 million – for the United States General Services Administration (GSA) to construct San Antonio’s highly-anticipated, new federal courthouse. The John H. Wood Federal Courthouse will be built at the site of the former San Antonio Police Headquarters at 214 W. Nueva St., and is expected to be completed by 2020, Cuellar told the intimate group of local dignitaries – including Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff – who gathered at the Plaza Club to acknowledge his efforts.
As a member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Cuellar filed emergency legislation in the House last September. Despite not passing, his initiative illuminated health and safety concerns at the current courthouse, which is dilapidated and has issues with mold, asbestos, structural damage, reccuring flea infestation, and poor water quality. The legislation also highlighted a number of security concerns. The aging structure, which was originally built as a pavilion for HemisFair ’68, is not up to security standards as high-risk defendants, such as drug cartel leaders, are currently led through the halls in close proximity to federal workers, judges, and prosecutors.
The security deficiencies, Cuellar said, were the “strongest argument” as well as the key to securing the funds – which exceeded the anticipated $135 million – for the new courthouse.
“Everybody talks about the security and the issues that we have with border security. Well, it’s not only border patrol, you’ve got to have the security in (your) courtrooms (too),” he said after the ceremony, adding that the existing courthouse design doesn’t provide adequate security for federal workers.
The new, 305,000 sq. ft. facility, which is being designed by local firms Lake/Flato Architects and Muñoz & Company, will have eight courtrooms and 83 parking spaces situated along the San Pedro Creek. The City and the GSA pre-negotiated a land swap: the lot that the courthouse currently sits on will go to the City in exchange for the vacant parcel of land where the new structure will be built. The City has not yet unveiled plans for the aging building, but Taylor said demolishing it to construct a mixed-use development is a viable option, considering the number of projects planned for Hemisfair.
“Funding for the new federal courthouse has been one of the City’s top priorities for several years and it took a group effort in order to make that a reality,” Taylor said, adding that Cuellar was a major leader in that effort. “The construction of our new federal courthouse is very important to our downtown and our entire community, (and it) will have a direct positive impact on two major downtown redevelopment projects that are both already underway – Hemisfair Park and San Pedro Creek. These projects are landmarks that will change the face of our downtown and contribute greatly to the urban revitalization of San Antonio.”
Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who chairs the City’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, praised Cuellar for his bipartisan work in Congress to get San Antonio on the GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund list, which includes a long inventory of repairs to existing federal buildings and a list of unfunded federal courthouses. Cuellar worked closely with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who he said did an “outstanding” job gaining Senate support for the project.
“I know that in a lot of orders in this rough, political world we live in, bipartisan is not viewed as a good word, and working with the other side is not universally approved, but it is by me, and it is by this mayor,” Krier publicly told Cuellar during the ceremony. “We would not be here today giving you a picture of a courthouse to be built if you had not put your shoulder to the wheel and worked tirelessly to make this happen and if you had not been willing to reach across the aisle and partner with John Cornyn to help make that happen.”
Wolff acknowledged Cuellar’s determination with the federal courthouse initiative and added that he has also been instrumental to the success of a number of other projects in San Antonio.
“We know the role you played in the courthouse, but you also played a major role for us in the river going south,” Wolff said, referring to the Mission Reach project in which the County invested nearly $200 million. “We thought, maybe the government will pay us back some, but you know how the federal government is…and sure enough, Congressman Cuellar helped us with the (United States Army Corps of Engineers) and we got our first $6.2 million back just a couple weeks ago.”
Cuellar, who thanked his chief of staff, the GSA staff, and various judges who worked with him on the effort, said after the ceremony that as far as the Appropriations Committee goes, “it was a good year, but we still need a lot more (funds) to go.” Along with the reimbursements for part of the Mission Reach, Cuellar also has been able to acquire federal funds for the Mitchell Lake water treatment project and other SAWS projects.
The Laredo-native, whose San Antonio office is located in the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, hopes to continue developing plans for a U.S.-Mexico passenger rail from San Antonio to Monterrey by way of Laredo. He said federal funding is a possibility for parts of the project, but he and project planners will likely look to the private sector to expand funding for the “heavy construction” portions of the initiative.
“It’s still not final yet, but I feel very confident that by the end of the year we’ll be able to do this,” he said.
The lengthy and fairly difficult federal courthouse endeavor was a “team effort,” Cuellar said, adding that “the old ways of saying this a Democratic or Republican issue – we have to put those aside.”
He’s positive that the new addition to downtown will only elevate San Antonio’s status as a growing, competitive city.
“The economic impact (of the new courthouse) on San Antonio is going to be tremendous,” he said.
Top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor presents Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) with a framed rendering of the new John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.