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Downtown Commission hears county plan for new campus

Monday, August 2, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Downtown Commission probably can’t be blamed for salivating a bit at the master planning process that Travis County is undergoing right now.


Travis County’s three-year effort to consolidate its downtown divisions and offices into a single campus has pointed out, among other things, the fact the county is a major landowner downtown, especially around the current courthouse complex.


The Downtown Commission certainly would consider any number of county-owned properties to be prime land for downtown redevelopment, especially now that the tax assessor office has moved to the county’s North Campus on Airport Boulevard. The recent purchase of 700 Lavaca, which will allow the consolidation of most of the county’s non-judicial divisions, only underlines the fact that a number of key county-owned blocks could eventually be in play for redevelopment.


At last week’s Downtown Commission meeting, county master plan project managers Belinda Powell and Linda Strickland, joined by Randy Rhoades, outlined the first phase of the county’s master plan, which is a centralized location for general government services that can serve the county through 2035. Part of that plan also includes an assessment of county land holdings, which includes a wide group of buildings around the courthouse and the Granger Building.


So while county officials are focused on just how departments can be consolidated into the 700 Lavaca building, members of the Downtown Commission were most interested in property holdings around Wooldridge Park that were accumulated, over time, for the potential expansion of the county’s criminal and civil courts.


Eventually, given the course of long-range plans, the county could sell off downtown blocks on which the county wellness center, Precinct 5 constable’s office and the former Rusk Law Firm are located. Even the Granger Building, in which Commissioners Court meets, could be on the table. Under current downtown constraints, a building on that property could be as tall as 150 feet.


Powell, asked by Commissioner Chris Schorre whether the sale of property was possible, said it’s too soon for a definitive decision on such matters, primarily due to courthouse complex planning. The courthouse complex, once expanded to meet 2035 needs, will have additional transit and parking needs.


Bonds for the long-term expansion of the civil courts likely will be put on a referendum in November 2011.


“I’m not saying we’re absolutely going to dispose of assets or not,” Powell told the commission. “It is going to depend on some community feedback about preferences, and what we’d like to do with the courts.”


The Downtown Commission also has particular concerns about Wooldridge Park. As commissioners pointed out, the county owns property on three sides of the park, with a good portion of it devoted to parking. That’s hardly the kind of atmosphere the commission would consider conducive to downtown amenities.


A higher profile use for Wooldridge Park is thoroughly integrated into the county’s downtown campus concept, Powell said. The park is “a historical asset that needs to be responded to with whatever we do from an urban perspective,” said Powell, adding that the park was a high-profile aspect of internal county decisions.


The terrain of Wooldridge Park is a sort of a bowl and the depth of that bowl determines the height of surrounding buildings. Capitol View corridors dictate the Capitol dome must be seen from the park. Members of the Downtown Commission, however, are not universally opposed to considering the elimination of at least one corridor so property alongside Wooldridge Park could be developed.


County commissioners, however, are committed to maintaining the Capitol View corridors and the dominance corridors across county property. Commissioner Michael McGill pointed out, however, that county leaders had said, back in 2007, that the master planning process would be the time to have a fuller discussion as to whether the Capitol View corridor should, or could, be challenged.


The county’s commitment is to honor the corridors as they currently exist, and to develop a master plan around current constraints, Rhoades told the commission. At the end of the day, the preferred scenario would be to preserve what is currently on the books and “yet still redevelop the sites in a way that is appealing to the public.”


“That’s our hope and desire,” said Rhoades.


Commissioner Daniel Leary, who represents the Historic Landmark Commission on the Downtown Commission, pressed county staff to consider underground parking or even possibly replacing current above ground parking with underground parking around Wooldridge Park. While county staff did not dismiss the suggestion, it was obvious that such a decision would be a rather costly one to campus planning.


“In this situation, if you really believe in this density and living on a campus, then you ought to consider the integration of the buildings with the landscape,” Leary said. “These parking garage present a bleakness that a little planning and landscaping might eventually remove.”


That viewpoint is consistent with past discussion among the Downtown Commission and Design Commission. Both groups have generally concluded that surface parking should be eliminated, wherever possible, downtown.


Strickland said consideration of underground parking came down, more or less, to a cost factor within the final campus plan. The county, which could have upwards of 3,500 employees by 2035, is looking for a plan that could be in concert with long-term parking needs, said Strickland, who pointed out the county not only has its own employees but also 500 jurors descending on the courthouse complex every Monday. That’s hard to accommodate without significant parking space.

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