Inside the Courts

Federal courthouse in Charlotte gets millions for expansion, renovation

The Charles R. Jonas Federal Courthouse in Charlotte.
The Charles R. Jonas Federal Courthouse in Charlotte.

Charlotte’s historic federal courthouse, once in decline, now is in line for a multimillion-dollar expansion.

For more than two decades, the Charles R. Jonas Building in Charlotte has been moored on a “five-year” list of courthouse projects in line for federal money. At first, officials planned to use the money to replace the century-old fixture on West Trade Street. A few years back, the local strategy shifted to restoring and expanding the existing structure. All it took was the money, which never seemed to come.

Last month, with lottery-like swiftness, the courthouse’s financial portfolio took a dramatic swing toward the better. When, unexpectedly , Congress approved almost $1 billion in the 2016 budget for eight high-priority courthouse replacements or renovations. Charlotte’s plans, which call for massive restoration and reconfiguration of the main courthouse building as well as up to a 10-story annex out back, is ranked third on the list.

While no checks have been cut, a source familiar with the process says the Jonas building could be in line for as much as $155 million.

“We were stunned,” said presiding U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney. “It has been very, very rare over the last two decades for money for any courthouse projects to be approved.”

This Tuesday, Whitney and the presiding judges at the other courthouses on the list will confer by phone to decide who gets what. Charlotte’s project, ranked only behind the courthouses in Nashville, Tenn., and Toledo, Ohio, has four parts:

First, under the terms of a complicated land-swap from 15 years ago, the city of Charlotte must replace the courthouse roof – about a $2 million job. Once that’s done, the feds will get their courthouse back, and the city will resume ownership of a parking lot between the police station and Time Warner Cable Arena.

Next, courthouse officials will decide how much space is needed in the annex. Resident courthouse architect Kevin Sutton says a firm will be hired to draw up plans that address the 10-year needs of the facility and figures out how to keep the tower from taking away from the neo-classical look of the Jonas building. Construction on the tower could begin in two years.

Once completed, most of the court system would move in, clearing the way for the restoration and re-engineering of the Jonas. Whitney says the campus at Mint and Trade streets, which is losing most of its oak tree canopy to death or disease, also will be redesigned to make it more inviting to the public without sacrificing security.

In all, the work will take about eight years. Keep in mind that a new Amtrak station and an office tower at nearby BB&T Ballpark also are coming to the neighborhood.

In time, the streetscape immediately west of Trade and Tryon streets will look radically different. For its part, the federal courthouse hopes to balance the old and the new, merging its past and its future.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS