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Travis County buys prime downtown lot

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court has entered into a contract to purchase a block of prime real estate in downtown Austin for $21.75 million. At its conclusion, the deal will secure a location for the county’s new civil and family courthouse.


The land, which is located on the south side of Republic Square Park, is among the last open city blocks not restricted by the Capitol View Corridor rules. The current owner is the Austin Museum of Art.


The purchase represents something of a return for Travis County, which constructed its first courthouse on the site in 1855. County Judge Sam Biscoe noted the historical significance. “The justice system is one of the largest and most important responsibilities that the county has by law,” Biscoe said in a written statement. “We recommit to our founders’ original vision of a Courthouse on this site.”


Biscoe added that the acquisition would bring some relief for the county. “We recommit to a modern civil and family courthouse for our citizens,” he said. “The last renovation occurred in 1964 when the population was one quarter of the population today. The resulting undersized and outdated courthouse creates deplorable conditions and urgent space needs.” 


Judge John K. Dietz, presiding district judge, echoed his sentiment. “The strain on operations is not restricted to the work environment for our own county staff, but extends more importantly to the 300,000+ constituents that we are all serve and that use our 80-year-old facility on a yearly basis,” he said in the press release.


The new courthouse will be built as part of a large downtown central campus that will hold Travis County’s governmental offices. A very early estimate put the total cost of that project, which will see some form of construction on 13 buildings, as high as $1.2 billion.


The complex may not be done before 2035.


In late November, In Fact Daily received a copy of a letter to the museum’s board from Jack Murphy, who called himself “concerned citizen and museum supporter.” In that letter, he questioned the wisdom of the sale. “How many times have we heard people say ‘Gee I wish we had not sold such and such property, look how much it is worth today,’” Murphy wrote. “The mission of the museum is not to sell off its assets. Selling the land would be like selling its paintings. A one-time gain that results in the loss of long-term financial stability.”

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