Federal courthouse set to open Nov. 28
By JAMES FINK
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It takes a lot to render Sen. Charles Schumer speechless, but the new federal courthouse overlooking Niagara Square did just that.
"It's breathtaking," Schumer said while standing outside the soon-to-open courtroom of U.S. Western District Chief Judge William Skretny. "The courthouse has turned out better than any of us could have imagined."
Skretny and fellow U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara share the ninth floor in the 10-story building, due to open Nov. 28. Skretny's first trial there is scheduled to start Nov. 29. The hallway outside the courtrooms and chambers offers a panoramic view that, on a clear day, includes mist rising from Niagara Falls.
The view contrasts with the sometimes rough road the judges traveled during the construction project, which was closely watched by many. The building is being hailed for the sleek design and open feel punctuated by a massive glass pavilion running the length of the south side.
"This building invites participation," Skretny said.
He and Arcara lobbied hard for an architecturally significant building.
"There's no way we wanted another pre-cast concrete, uninviting building," Arcara said.
The project proved to be something of an economic-development engine. It was cited as a driving force behind development of the Avant building a few blocks up Delaware Avenue, and it played a minor role in New Era Cap Co.'s decision to move its corporate headquarters from Derby to downtown.
Mark Croce, who is renovating the former Statler Towers, said being in the shadow of the courthouse was one factor that played into his decision. He is relying on spin-off traffic from the courthouse to generate business for restaurants in the renamed Statler City. It also may lead to some office tenants in his building, he said.
"The courthouse is another sign that Delaware Avenue is becoming one of the most heavily invested areas in Buffalo," Croce said. "More investment translates into more people coming through my building. In fact, I'm already seeing some of the economic impact even before the courthouse opens."
One thing the courthouse does not have is a cafeteria.
"If we made the building too self-contained, it would have taken away from what we were trying to accomplish," Skretny said. "It is fair to say that this building is inspiring development in and around the courthouse."
Arcara's courtroom was dubbed the Erie Courtroom, in recognition of his six-year stint as Erie County district attorney before being named to the federal bench. Skretny's is called the Buffalo Courtroom.
Both feature Vermont marble, a rich veneer from Indiana and a decorative aluminum-leaf ceiling that was installed one piece at a time.
"All the New York City judges would be very jealous," Schumer said. "I should call 'Law & Order' and have them film some episodes here."
The courtroom has an understated elegance.
"We didn't want it to be gauche," Skretny said.
The project has been something of a personal mission for him and Arcara, a 17-year process that seemed to take more twists and turns than a Dickens novel. Political chips were cashed as the project moved from a wish list to reality. Along the way, they had to deal with post-9/11 security concerns and other issues, including a condensation buildup that caused concern about possible mold in some areas while the building was still under construction. The contractor, Pittsburgh-based Mascaro Construction Co., fixed the condensation problem at its own expense, according to to Denise Pease, federal General Services Administration regional administrator.
"We wouldn't have moved in here unless it was corrected," Arcara said.
Funding for the $137 million project was the result of tireless lobbying by the two federal judges and Schumer, Rep. Brian Higgins and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others. Ground was broken four years ago.
"It's been a long, long journey," Arcara said.
The courthouse replaced a series of buildings and parking lots on an odd-shaped block bounded by Mohawk Street, Delaware Avenue, Niagara Square and Elmwood Avenue. In a city noted for its architectural landmarks, the courthouse is sure to join the list.
"This is a revival of Buffalo's tradition of great and grand architecture," Higgins said. "This adds an extraordinary offering to an already full menu."
It also sits on one of downtown's busiest points, with Buffalo City Hall as a neighbor and Statler City across Delaware Avenue.
"This marks a major milestone in Buffalo's history," Higgins said.
The 284,000-square-foot building was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates P.C. Construction management and architectural support were handled by Grand Island-headquartered Cannon Design. It marks the first courthouse to be constructed downtown since work on Buffalo City Court began in 1971. At $137 million, it is also the largest - in terms of dollars - public sector-fueled project in the city's history.
"We told the architects that we wanted an open building," Arcara said. "This is the people's building; this is not a fortress."
The pavilion's curved, tinted windows are etched with the U.S. Constitution - all 4,400 words.
There are five courtrooms and six judicial chambers for U.S. federal district court, four courtrooms and chambers for the U.S. Magistrate's office, one chamber for the U.S. Court of Appeals and a satellite law library. There also is support space for the U.S. Marshall's Service, U.S. Attorney's office, federal probation and pretrial services, the federal public defender's office and U.S. General Services Administration offices.
Many are offices that are shifting from the Michael Dillon U.S. Courthouse, a Depression-era building that is considered architecturally significant in its own right. That building will eventually house U.S. Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Trustees offices, the U.S. Tax Court and federal defenders' offices, Higgins said.
"This isn't my courthouse," Skretny said. "This is the people's courthouse."