City Hall ditch

A ditch behind city hall in Anniston is causing the new federal courthouse site to be possibly moved. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

Anniston officials hope a new federal courthouse will be built on the block where City Hall now sits, but reports released Monday seem to show the federal government favors another site, at least for now.

Toby Bennington, Anniston’s director of economic development and city planning, said Wednesday that while the city feels it made a good proposal for use of the City Hall block, what matters most is that the new $42 million federal courthouse be located in Anniston.

“For it to be located in downtown Anniston for us is the number one priority,” Bennington said. “Number two is that the process is moving forward.”

The U.S. General Services Administration on Monday released reports that show that 80 percent of the block where City Hall sits is in a floodplain. Snow Creek crosses the northwestern corner of the site in an underground concrete channel. The agency deems that fact to be a “major negative impact” in its decision among three sites selected as possible locations for the new federal courthouse, according to one report.  

According to Bennington, the GSA’s report ranked as the most favorable site the block bordered by 14th Street, Moore Avenue, 13th Street and Grove Street, just north of the Cheaha Brewing Company. The report at least found the fewest problems with that site. The City Hall block ranks second, Bennington said, followed by the block bordered by West 10th and West 11th streets and Gurnee and Moore avenues. Both those sites had “major negative impacts” noted in the report.

Each of the three sites received varying grades in 11 categories in the environmental report. The GSA’s release of the draft environmental assessment and cultural resources assessment reports began a 30-day period for public comment.  

Once collected, any comments will be included in a report and sent to another GSA department, which will then begin looking at other aspects of the site selection process, Bennington said.

“When they start looking at it from a planning, location access point of view, which is the second phase, it may be looked at differently,” Bennington said.

Attempts to reach a GSA spokeswoman Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Anniston officials have proposed swapping the city-owned land where City Hall now sits to the federal government in exchange for the current federal courthouse at Noble and 12th streets, which would later become City Hall.

In addition to concerns over the potential for flooding in the City Hall block, the GSA found that building near the former Greyhound bus station on Gurnee Avenue, site of the new Freedom Riders National Monument, would have a “major negative impact” on that area.

In a Jan. 26 letter to the GSA, the National Park Service asked that the block adjacent to the former Greyhound station would be the least appropriate, because the demolition of the 14 buildings across Gurnee from the monument would hurt its ability to “convey its historic associations” and damage its “integrity of setting.”

The Alabama Historical Commission agreed, and asked that the GSA select the block near Cheaha Brewing Company, according to the report.

The cultural resources assessment released by the GSA on Monday states that each of the three sites are located within the Downtown Anniston Historic District, and construction in any would require permission from the Anniston Historic Preservation Commission.

Robert Downing, owner of Downing’s General Store, which has been on the block West 10th and West 11th streets and Gurnee and Moore for 54 years, said Wednesday that he’s pleased the GSA seems to least favor his block, and he hopes the agency selects the City Hall site.

Agreeing to swap the city-owned land for the current federal courthouse, for use as the new City Hall, would make the best use of the old marble-clad courthouse, Downing said.

“It’s a very fine architectural structure that should be utilized for public purpose, and it would be the most economical thing for the GSA,” Downing said, referring to the cost associated with keeping up the former courthouse, if the agency were to turn down Anniston’s proposal.  

Attempts to contact other owners of properties on the block shared by Downing’s General Store were unsuccessful Wednesday, although several have previously expressed a desire to see the new courthouse located there.  

Frank Arnold, whose family owns property on the block bordered by 14th Street, Moore Avenue, 13th Street and Grove Street, said Wednesday that he’s pleased that GSA has ranked that block most favorably.

The GSA has said the new federal courthouse is needed because the current courthouse is too small and no longer meets safety needs.The new courthouse is to be better equipped to hold federal criminal trials, in addition to the civil trials currently held in Anniston.  

The GSA expects to have plans completed by the summer of 2019, according to the agency’s website, and the new courthouse built by the summer of 2021.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.