For 47 years, the boxy white building at 316 N. 26th St. was home to the federal court system in Billings. Asbestos problems that surfaced almost 20 years ago eventually led to the construction of a new, $80 million courthouse that opened in August.
Key events along the way:
The federal courthouse on the corner of North 26th Street and Third Avenue North opens. The $3.9 million, 225,000-square-foot, five-story building is considered the largest office building in Montana.
The building consolidated federal offices scattered around town. The courthouse’s tenants eventually include the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. District Court, Clerk of Court’s office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, the General Services Administration and the Department of Interior’s Field Solicitor’s Office.
Asbestos, a common fire-proofing material at the time, was used in the courthouse’s construction. In the 1970s, the federal government banned asbestos because when inhaled, tiny asbestos fibers can cause cancer and other health problems.
A study notes concern about the building’s asbestos, which over the years had weakened into a crumble-prone state known as “friable.” Routine maintenance became difficult because of the potential for releasing asbestos fibers.
Another study said fire-proofing throughout the building was prone to crumbling and “significantly damaged.”
The courthouse was named the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse in honor of Battin, a Billings native and five-term congressman who spent 27 years as a federal judge in the building.
Former U.S. Marshal Dwight MacKay asks the GSA for a private elevator on the exterior of the building to transport federal prisoners instead of bringing prisoners through public hallways. Worried that an outside elevator would spoil the boxy look of the building, GSA rejects the exterior elevator in favor of constructing an elevator through the middle of the building. The plan includes renovating the marshal’s space and is to be done by December 2004. Within months, workers have problems with tiny flecks of asbestos stirred up during the project.
One estimate pegs the cost of removing all of the asbestos in the building at $16 million.
2004 / 2005
Air monitors measure 64 readings of asbestos in concentrations that exceed a conservative limit for exposure set by building managers. The building is shut down twice, and the elevator project is abandoned.
The GSA denies Bureau of Reclamation’s request to move out because of the asbestos problem.
Talks begin about building a new federal courthouse and office building. There also is discussion about vacating the Battin courthouse for a complete renovation and asbestos removal.
The GSA and Pacheco Corp., the general contractor for the elevator project, settle on terms for severing their contract, with the GSA paying the company $1.3 million.
The Billings City Council approves a land swap to pave the way for a new courthouse, expected to cost about $20 million. The new courthouse would be on the north half of the block bounded by North 26th and 27th streets and Second and Third avenues North. Yellowstone County commissioners also approve the deal.
September: The U.S. House of Representatives authorizes annual funding for a new courthouse in downtown Billings, clearing the way for the GSA to plan a new building. The resolution allows the GSA to spend about $3.3 million a year to lease courthouse space. The new building is intended to be privately owned and leased to the government for 20 years.
April: U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ office announces that the GSA has set aside $80 million in stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to buy land downtown and to build and operate a new and larger courthouse. The GSA would own the land and building rather than lease the property as previously discussed. Private ownership would have kept the property on the tax rolls.
Under the previous plan, the total cost for a developer to build the courthouse was about $35 million for a 71,000-square-foot building. Leasing the building for about $3.3 million a year for 20 years would have cost the government an estimated $66 million.
The GSA said the new courthouse could be 40 percent bigger than earlier plans and would last 100 years.
The agency also proposes a second, 110,000-square-foot building to house the BIA and Bureau of Reclamation. The office building would be privately built and leased to the government.
June: Local officials unveil a complicated land deal to sell the GSA downtown property for the new courthouse. The transaction of swaps, sales and trades had five sellers and one buyer, with the GSA ultimately buying a 63,000-square-foot site for $3 million from Downtown Billings Partnership and Big Sky Economic Development.
The transaction included the White Family LLC, which sold a parking lot; Yellowstone County, which gave up a portion of its parking lot and the Wells Fargo drive-up site in exchange for the parking lot owned by the White Family LLC; the City of Billings, which sold portions North 26th Street and Second Avenue North; BSED; and the Downtown Billings Partnership.
December: The GSA awards $59.4 million contract to M.A. Mortenson, Co., a Minnesota construction firm, to build the courthouse. Demolition of buildings on the site is under way to prepare the location for new construction.
January: GSA unveils preliminary design showing a five- or six-floor, energy-efficient building and parking project of 146,742 gross square feet.
Sletten Construction of Great Falls, one of six finalists for the courthouse contract, files protest after its bid and design were passed over in favor of Mortenson’s, which was $8 million more than Sletten’s. Sletten claims GSA violated the terms of its request for proposals. The protest halts the project.
April: The U.S. Government Accountability Office denies Sletten’s protest. Design and construction resumes.
May: Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull and others meet with GSA and Mortenson officials in Denver over courthouse architecture and get a commitment that the exterior will be redesigned to reflect a more traditional look. Sletten’s exterior design was more popular in the community and was Cebull’s preference.
June: Local officials and the public get a first extended look at courthouse design, which will be five stories with three courtrooms on the top two floors. Local officials are pleased with the design. Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said the courthouse will fit in well with other downtown buildings and reflect natural features such as the Rimrocks.
October: The GSA holds a ground-breaking for the new courthouse. Work continues year round with an average of 80 to 100 people working daily on the project. The site encompasses about 1.8 acres and will accommodate a 30-year expansion plan.
September: The GSA awards $30 million contract to The Boyer Co. of Salt Lake City to build a five-story, 111,000-square-foot federal office building at 2021 Fourth Ave. N. The contract also calls for building a warehouse off of South 27th Street near Interstate 90. Boyer will work with local team of Jones Construction of Billings and Langlas & Associates. The building will house about 400 employees who work at the Battin courthouse and be leased to the GSA. Completion is planned for summer 2013.
January: Work begins on new federal office building. Courthouse construction continues. Mortenson said it has hired 40 Montana companies, including 32 firms from Billings, for the courthouse work. Companies incorporated in Montana have received 74 percent of the work, exceeding the required 60 percent minimum on federal contracts, GSA said.
April: GSA declares the old courthouse as surplus property and gives homeless assistance agencies and local and state government first crack at buying the building “as is.”
May: City of Billings and Yellowstone County pass on buying the building.
June: Baucus introduces a bill to designate the new courthouse as the “James F. Battin United States Courthouse” and to no longer use that name for the old courthouse. The bill is awaiting action.
August: Five federal agencies move into new courthouse at 2601 Second Ave. N. The agencies include the U.S. Courts, Clerk of District Court, U.S. Probation and Parole Office. U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorneys office and GSA. Courthouse opens for business.
September: U.S. District Court holds evening public open house for new courthouse. GSA dedicates building.