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VOL. 121 | NO. 173 | Friday, September 1, 2006

Construction Firm Moves Ahead With Plans for Downtown Law School

By Amy O. Williams

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ORDER IN THE COURT: This drawing shows how a courtroom at the U.S. post office on Front Street will be restored. -- Image Courtesy Of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects And Fleming-Associates-Architects Pc

 It's official: Bell & Associates Construction LP has been named the construction manager/general contractor for renovations that will convert the Memphis post office and former U.S. Customs House building on Front Street into a home for the University of Memphis' Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

The state building commission approved the selection of the Brentwood, Tenn.-based construction firm at its August meeting in Nashville. The commission oversees construction - and renovation, in this case - for all state public buildings.

Everything has its price

Bell & Associates is affiliated with Nashville-based Ray Bell Construction Co. Inc., which recently won the contract to oversee the construction of a $151 million correctional facility in East Tennessee. Ray Bell Construction also is building the Fayette County Criminal Justice Center in Somerville, about 45 miles east of Memphis.

It is the company's reputation and experience with criminal justice centers that gave it the edge in landing the $42 million contract to renovate the law school, said James Smoot, professor and dean of the school.

"(Bell & Associates) has a reputation for taking on difficult projects and bringing them home on time and within budget," Smoot said.

The estimated $42 million the state has earmarked for the law school renovation does not, however, include the $5.3 million it will take for the U of M to take control of the post office building. That money will be raised through a capital campaign being conducted through the law school. The campaign is titled "Building Upon Traditions: The Campaign to Bring the University of Memphis School of Law Downtown."

The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law renovation project:
Construction manager: Bell & Associates
Construction LP, 255 Wilson Pike Road, Brentwood
Expected start date: 2007
Expected project length: 18 to 20 months
First classes to be held: Fall 2009

"Gov. (Phil) Bredesen said he would make sure we had the money to build a fine law school," Smoot said. "He said he understood why we liked that building, but we were going to have to pay for it."

Moving forward

Smoot hopes to raise $12 million, twice what is needed to buy the post office. Money raised during the campaign will go into an endowment that will pay for the building and, in time, pay for any necessary maintenance or upgrades.

Renovation work will begin sometime in spring 2007 and will convert the building that was once the location of every major federal case in Memphis into a Downtown law school.

The main fault with the current law school, Smoot said, is that the library is too small. In the new facility, the library space almost would double, from about 60,000 square feet to more than 100,000 square feet on five floors.

Also, the original federal courtroom on the third floor of the post office building will be kept as a courtroom that will be used for practice and, eventually, real cases, Smoot said.

"We are going to try to reproduce the jury box and the bench," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but that's what we are going to do."

The former federal courtroom would have room for about 75 to 100 people, and would be one of three courtrooms in the building. Drawings produced by Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects and Fleming-Associates-Architects PC show a huge student lounge - almost 10,000 square feet - on the first floor of the building. The drawings also show a legal clinic in the basement level. The law school lobby will be designed to reflect the historic nature of the structure, which was built in 1876.

Hitching post(s)

For critics who have worried about parking issues that may accompany the law school's move Downtown, Smoot said he has been working with the Center City Commission to come up with a solution.

"The Center City Commission has told us they are confident we'll find a solution," he said. "They've been very helpful."

A number of possibilities are available for parking in or near the area of the post office, said Jeff Sanford, president of the CCC.

Some of those options include parking spaces operated by the Downtown Parking Authority, which is an extension of the CCC.

"We think, at present, there is ample parking in the area, and the situation will only improve," Sanford said.

Sanford said the law school's move already has benefited Downtown in advance of its moving to the area. The law school is expected to begin having classes in August 2009.

"It's a great thing for Downtown, it's very important for Downtown, and we are already seeing the positive impact on development," he said. "With the law school coming, developers have suddenly become interested in Downtown."

The renovation project is expected to take from 18 to 20 months to complete.

And while a construction manager has been selected for the project, University of Memphis spokesman Curt Guenther said the arrangement that could allow the law school to take up residence in the post office is not yet a done deal.

"There are several more steps in the approval process before it is finally approved," Guenther said.

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