Part of TVA’s power headquarters, the current Lookouts stadium site and a downtown property just a block away from the current federal courthouse site in Chattanooga are on a short list of potential sites to build a new federal courthouse.
The U.S. General Services Administration announced Tuesday the three sites are under consideration as the potential location for the 186,000-square-foot federal building, which will be the biggest building erected downtown in more than a decade and could help shape the future of Chattanooga’s central city.
Congress has authorized $218.4 million for a replacement for the Joel Solomon Federal Building on Georgia Avenue, which was constructed more than 90 years ago and no longer meets today’s security and accessibility standards for federal courthouses.
Kevin Kerns, the acting regional administrator for the GSA in Atlanta, said in a statement Wednesday the agency is working with court and city officials to identify the best site and should soon begin an environmental assessment of the three properties that is expected to take most of the year to complete.
“We look forward to delivering a successful project for the court, the American people and the city of Chattanooga,” Kerns said.
GSA is seeking 2 to 5 acres of downtown property and would like to secure most of an entire downtown block for the new courthouse to build a new facility that allows prisoners and others to enter the building through a secured underground entrance. The new courthouse, once completed, will consist of seven courtrooms and nine chambers.
The facility will provide space for the district clerk, U.S. Probation Office, bankruptcy clerk, United States Marshals Service, United States Attorney’s Office, federal public defender and the General Services Administration.
“This has been a long, drawn-out and sometimes discouraging process, but it’s heartening to me to see this project moving forward now,” former U.S. District Court Judge and prosecutor Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice Jr. said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Each of these sites seems to offer a real potential for what is likely to be a landmark in downtown Chattanooga, just as the Joel Solomon building has been for more than 90 years.”
Mattice said federal judges, marshals and prosecutors have been urging Congress to fund and for GSA to build a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga for nearly four decades.
The General Services Administration, which constructs and maintains most federal buildings, put a new Chattanooga courthouse on its long-term construction plan in 1999, and Chattanooga has moved up to No. 2 on the government’s priority list, behind Hartford, Connecticut.
“Because of inadequacies in the existing building’s configuration and size, judges, prisoners and the public must use the same public elevators and corridors,” General Services said in a report on the Solomon office building. “There are not enough courtroom holding cells. The prisoner access route to one of the magistrate judge courtrooms passes through the magistrate judge’s chambers. Further, the building lacks a prisoner sally port, adequate setbacks or perimeter barriers.”
General Services also said Chattanooga’s federal building “suffers from ongoing water infiltration issues, mold issues and a major rat infestation throughout the building, as well as the presence of asbestos.”
The Joel Solomon Federal Building, which was erected in 1932 during the Great Depression, is expected to be renovated for continued use as a downtown post office and a facility to house other federal agencies, including congressional, IRS and other federal offices that lease facilities elsewhere.
If a site is selected and work begins by 2024 as expected for a new courthouse, Chattanooga will be the third city in the Tennessee Valley in as many years to get a new federal courthouse. Construction was completed in 2021 of a new, $194.5 million federal courthouse in Nashville named after former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and construction began in September on a 123,100-square-foot courthouse in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is offering some of its 1.2 million-square-foot Chattanooga Office Complex site south of Broad Street as a site for the new federal courthouse. Since the pandemic forced TVA to empty most of its offices nearly three years ago, the federal utility has shifted most of the 3,000 employees in the Chattanooga area to at-home work or another plant, office or warehouse.
Only a few hundred people now regularly come every day to the TVA power headquarters, and some of those are due to relocate to a new $300 million TVA power operations center being built in Meigs County.
“Like a lot of companies, we changed the way we work,” TVA Vice President Buddy Eller said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We are still committed to having a major presence in Chattanooga, and we are evaluating different options as we move forward.”
An initial assessment by TVA last year indicated the federal utility could use less office space and may not need the sprawling four-building Chattanooga downtown complex, which was completed in 1986.
“It is going to be different forever, and we’re going to have to re-evaluate all of our office spaces,” TVA President Jeff Lyash said in an interview last year with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “The days of walled offices and dedicated cubicles, I think, are coming to an end. The long-term trend is going to be much less square footage and much more flexible uses.”
TVA was once Chattanooga’s biggest office user, but since the 1980s TVA has cut its staff by more than 75% from the peak levels reached when it was building the nation’s biggest nuclear power program. In 2013, TVA sold its vehicle fleet facility at 10th and Douglas streets, and in 2015, the utility sold both the Edney Building at 11th and Market streets and the former Tennessee American Water office at 11th and Broad streets.
The city of Chattanooga, which acquired Hawk Hill in 1999 — where the current Chattanooga Lookouts baseball stadium is located — has also offered the stadium location as a site for the new federal courthouse.
The Lookouts are planning to relocate by 2026 to a new stadium being planned for the former Wheland Foundry site on Chattanooga’s Southside. The city and the River City Co. — which will reclaim the property once the Lookouts vacate Hawk Hill — have begun looking at future alternatives for the downtown property near Highway 27 overlooking the Tennessee River.
The Lookouts stadium site is now controlled by the Chattanooga Sports Authority, but the baseball team has committed to Major League Baseball to relocate the minor league team into a more modern and better-positioned stadium on the Southside within the next few years.
“We want to be clear that the city does not have a preference at this point on any of the three proposed sites,” Joda Thongnopnua, chief of staff for Mayor Tim Kelly, said in phone interview Wednesday. “GSA will evaluate the sites to determine which is best, but we have agreed to allow them to consider Hawk Hill among the sites.”
SET TO ADJOURN
The other proposed site being considered is the property bounded by Lindsay Street on the west, East Eighth Street on the north, Houston Street on the east and extending south to (and including) 814 Lindsay St.
Much of this site just north of the Patten Parkway was once the site of an American Legion Hall, which burned down decades ago, according to John Clark, whose real estate firm is involved in managing the property for the American Legion. The site also could include the site of the Partnership and All Saints Chapel on Eighth Street, although GSA is still evaluating each parcel and would have to negotiate any purchase.
Kerns said GSA will further analyze the three sites and seek public comment as part of the National Environmental Policy Act assessment, which will begin by March.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.