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County pitches courthouse plan to Downtown group

Monday, February 23, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County officials presented plans for a proposed $291.6 million Civil and Family Courthouse to Austin’s Downtown Commission last week in an early bid to shore up city support before taking the plan to voters ahead of November’s bond election. If approved, it could mean the average county taxpayer could see an extra $41 on his/her annual bill.

During the one-hour briefing Wednesday, Travis County strategic planning manager Belinda Powell and URS consultant Matias Segura delivered a 45-page PowerPoint presentation showing detailed but still-preliminary plans for the project that could replace the parking lot just south of Republic Square Park at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets.

Powell told the commission that the county has outgrown the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, located up Guadalupe Street just several blocks from the proposed site. That 185,000-square-foot facility first opened in 1931, and Powell explained that after three expansions over the past 84 years, the building is in need of a major overhaul.

“We’re still faced with significant deficiencies with this building,” she told the commission. “In order to bring this building back as a community asset and continue to use it as part of county’s real estate portfolio, it needs to be vacated to be renovated.”

At 520,000 square feet, the proposed project is more than twice the size of the current courthouse. Along with three levels of underground parking, the plan calls for a 14-story tower covering the northern half of the block. Plans to develop another mixed-use tower on the southern half are underway but will not be included in the bond question.

In the short term, Segura suggested that the area could be used as an outdoor gathering space and possibly include a playground and food vendors. He also said it could be used to provide relief to Republic Square Park.

“One of the great features after working with (Austin Parks and Recreation Department) on this is all the queuing that occurs at large events at Republic Park could occur at this site,” Segura said, referring to long lines of turf-trampling concertgoers who fill Republic Square when it becomes a shuttle staging area for events like Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Even before Wednesday’s briefing, the project was already facing headwinds from at least one Downtown Commission member who has decried the proposed courthouse as a suboptimal use for such a prime piece of real estate. ReMax Downtown REATX real estate agent Jude Galligan published his opposition to the plan in a Feb. 12 blog article. He wrote: “After 5 p.m., this proposed 14-story box becomes an urban void. A full city block — one of the best in the entire city — sitting idle for 12+ hours a day.”

In her briefing Wednesday, Powell explained that the county had considered two other locations, one on Airport Boulevard near FM 2222 and another at Palm Park on East Cesar Chavez Street and the I-35 access road. Aside from planning concerns — including height restrictions on Airport Boulevard and proximity to a historical landmark at Palm Park — Powell emphasized the superior accessibility of the Fourth Street location. She pointed out that there are 54 Capital Metro bus routes that converge at or near Republic Square Park.

“We also know the Lance Armstrong Bikeway is continuing to develop along Third Street,” Powell said. Segura noted that over half of all practicing attorneys in Travis County have offices in downtown Austin.

One of the toughest sells for voters, of course, will be the project’s eye-swirling price tag, and county planners have already demonstrated a willingness to use numbers that are more marketable than they are perhaps accurate. Powell and Segura’s presentation compares regional courthouse construction costs across the country and concludes that, at $447 per square foot, Travis County’s proposal comes $4 per square foot cheaper than the average comparable project in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

But, as Galligan pointed out, the cost of the project divided by its proposed size comes out to $561 per square foot, a wrinkle in the numbers for which Segura had an answer.

“One of the things that make courthouses unique is that they’re all different,” he told Galligan. “And not all courthouses have subterranean parking garages. A lot of courthouses don’t have parking garages at all. … So our cost — the $447 per square foot — that’s based on the cost of the courthouse alone. Not the parking garage.”

Commission Chair Joel Scherr Sher pointed out another uncertainty that could derail the county’s designs. He noted that the proposed courthouse is not planned with the mandatory 120-foot setback from Republic Square Park that a private developer would face.

“That’s the biggest issue in front of us,” Powell replied, adding that planners are in talks with city staff to seek a variance. “That is the issue that we can’t resolve without sacrificing the future expansion space or the additional density on the block.”

The Downtown Commission did not take any decisive action after Wednesday’s briefing. Voters will have the opportunity to take a crack at it in November.

This story has been corrected since its initial publication

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