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Staff file photo / The Joel W. Solomon Federal Building in downtown Chattanooga is shown in this Nov. 3, 2014, aerial photo.

More than two decades after the federal government identified the need for a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga, the U.S. General Services Administration is soliciting proposals for sites to build an estimated $218 million building to replace the aging Joel Solomon building across from Miller Park in downtown Chattanooga.

The General Services Administration is seeking expressions of interest this month from those willing to sell parcels of 2 to 5 acres in the city of Chattanooga to accommodate the development of a 186,000-square-foot building to house the U.S. District Court and Chattanooga Bankruptcy Court, along with facilities for the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Marshals Service Office, among other federal agencies.

Congress provided $94.5 million last year for site design and construction of a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga, but more than twice that amount will be needed to complete the proposed project. Proposals to provide over $186 million for the project did move out of a Senate appropriations panel in each of the past two fiscal years, but the Chattanooga courthouse is yet to receive full funding.

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 only Hartford, Connecticut. In its notice to solicit property offers for a site for the new courthouse in Chattanooga, the administration said the existing federal building on Georgia Avenue, which was erected in 1933, fails to meet prisoner, courtroom and safety standards.

"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 the 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 building

— Architect: Reuben Harrison Hunt (1862-1937). The federal building was one of his last major works.

— Initial cost: $493,000.

— Construction: 1932-1933.

— Design: Art Moderne style typical of government buildings in the 1930s. The five-story building has a steel structure, clad in white marble. Penthouses are set on projecting towers at the northwest and southwest corners.

— Tenants: The courthouse building houses five judges (two district judges, one senior district judge and two magistrate judges) and contains four courtrooms (one district and three magistrate). along with the downtown U.S. Post Office, U.S. Marshal's Office and the district offices for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty.

None of the courtrooms meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, the report said.

The existing federal courthouse across from Miller Park, which also houses Chattanooga's downtown Post Office, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Downtown boosters are urging General Services to build a new courthouse in the central city and find a new use for the current federal building, possibly to house other federal agencies.

Emily Mack, president of the River City Co., said the downtown development agency and the Chattanooga Design Studio "will be working together to support local property owners who are interested in submitting a site for consideration" for the new federal courthouse building downtown, which Mack said should also follow strong urban design principles.

"It is extremely important that the Joel Solomon building is preserved and adapted for future generations due to its historical and architectural significance," Mack said in an emailed statement.

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Staff file photo / The Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and United States Courthouse is seen downtown on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

General Services has recently or is currently building or renovating more than a dozen existing federal courthouse facilities, including the construction of new courthouses in Nashville; Huntsville, Anniston and Mobile, Alabama; and Savannah, Georgia. In those cities, former federal courthouses have or are being converted for other government or commercial use.

Construction was recently completed of a new, $194.5 million federal courthouse in Nashville. The 275,000-square-foot federal building is known as the Fred D. Thompson U.S. Courthouse in honor of Tennessee's late U.S. senator.

In Huntsville, Alabama, construction is scheduled to begin this spring on a 123,100-square-foot courthouse, if sufficient funding is made available.

Kathy Rineer-Garber, the General Services public affairs officer for the Southeast region, said the administration is submitting a formal request for the remaining funding needed to build the new courthouse in Chattanooga as part of its fiscal 2023 budget. But Congress must appropriate more money for the project to proceed.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, has vowed to work to fund the new federal building in Chattanooga.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

Timeline

— 1933: Construction of new building to house all federal offices in Chattanooga, including the main post office and the U.S. courthouse.

— 1938: American Institute of Architects recognizes courthouse as one of the 150 finest U.S. buildings in the previous 20 years.

— 1960: Civil rights lawsuit, Mapp et al. vs. the City of Chattanooga Board of Education, filed at courthouse, leading to desegregation of city public schools in 1962.

— 1964: Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa convicted of jury tampering at courthouse.

— 1980: The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

— 1981 The U.S. General Services Administration assumes ownership of the building and renames it in honor of Joel "Jay" W. Solomon, a Chattanooga native and GSA administrator from 1977 to 1979.

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