New U.S. courthouse likely for Baltimore Present one faulted for construction, small rooms, looks

October 15, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is very likely to get a new federal courthouse, replacing the 22-year-old one that has been labeled by judges, lawyers and even criminals as one of the worst public buildings in the city.

The new building, to be located at an undecided downtown location, would probably be put on the federal judiciary's five-year plan for new courthouse projects, said J. Frederick Motz, the chief judge in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Construction of the building wouldn't be complete until about 2010, however.

"Because of the serious and well-documented deficiencies in the Edward A. Garmatz building, a new courthouse would be of great benefit to the federal court as well as the city and state," Motz said. "The U.S. courthouse in Baltimore is considered one of the most unsatisfactory public buildings in the nation."

Among the many complaints about the Garmatz courthouse -- built in 1976 with a price tag of $27.5 million -- are that its courtrooms are small, its architecture poor, its construction flimsy and its bathrooms poorly ventilated.

The five-year plan for courthouse projects is overseen by the federal Administrative Office of the Courts, which reports to the 26-member U.S. Judicial Conference. The conference, which is the policy-making arm of the federal courts, will finalize the list in March. Congress would then approve the funding.

Court officials in Baltimore say that the problems with the courthouse, home to 10 full-time judges and about 45 U.S. attorneys, make it one of the country's best candidates for replacement. They hope that the new building will offer not only improved space and security, but look better.

"This courthouse is ugly. It provides no foot traffic, synergy, or life to downtown," said Baltimore U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg, one of the courthouse's biggest critics. "It resembles a post-World War II Soviet-bloc parking garage, and it's sitting on a prime piece of downtown real estate."

Legg expects there may be periodic funding delays along the way, but he said Baltimore will get a new courthouse. The old building would be used for another purpose, perhaps housing a state or federal agency, he said.

"Eventually the new courthouse will be a reality," he said. "It's a real opportunity for Baltimore. A courthouse can be a real anchor for development."

The planning for the building hasn't begun, and there are no cost estimates. But Legg said chief among the benefits of a new building will be more space, better design and improved security.

The nine-story Garmatz building, named for a former congressman indicted on bribery charges but later cleared, was built at a time when inflation was running high and the federal government was slashing its construction budget. Designers were forced to cut square-foot construction costs in half.

As a result, the building hasn't aged well and kept up with the workload that a federal courthouse has in the late 1990s, says First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning.

"I don't think anybody's wishing for a Taj Mahal, but we do want adequate space," Schenning said. "It's not that you need huge offices. But when you do these white collar cases or one of these gang cases, you've got agents and witnesses and documents spilling out into the hallways."

Another concern with the existing building is security. In appearance and construction, it is very similar to the federal building in Oklahoma City that was bombed in 1995, an unsettling fact to employees in a federal courthouse.

"If there was an explosion in or near this building, it wouldn't withstand it," Legg said. "It's a flimsy type of construction."

He added, "That is something that we definitely have to think about. We get a regular amount of bomb threats. Since the courthouse is the focal point of the American judicial system, it's a likely target for people who wish to make a symbolic protest."

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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