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By all accounts, the courthouse is outdated and desperately in need of replacement.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.
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.