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Travis County eyes redevelopment of key properties

Wednesday, February 25, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County officials are attempting to plot the future of nine separate properties, some that have fates hinging heavily on a mercurial electorate this November.

If voters approve a $291.6 million bond to build a new Civil and Family Courthouse, new office space would be created that would free up existing space at current facilities, creating the potential for the county to sell, demolish or redevelop those properties.

Travis County Commissioners heard a presentation Tuesday from the Planning and Budget office on those potential opportunities. Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell and Planning Project Manager Mark Gilbert also briefed commissioners on development possibilities at several other county properties.

Of the nine pieces of land under the spotlight, four are in downtown Austin. One of them, known as Block 126, sits at 1010 Lavaca and 1004 Guadalupe streets between the current Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse and the Governor’s Mansion. The two-building, 1751.75-acre site is home to the Facilities Management office and Constable Precinct 5 headquarters.

Powell told commissioners that those offices would eventually relocate to the new Civil and Family Courthouse if voters approve that plan in November.

A conceptual drawing of a possible redevelopment of Block 126 illustrates the difficult restrictions imposed on it by Capitol View Corridors. The proposal shows a five-story office building wedged into the northwest corner that fits across the block triangularly and opens toward a plaza bounded on the other side by a single-story, V-shaped structure.

“The Wooldridge Square CVC is the most restrictive to this site,” Powell told commissioners.

She also reported that the Block 126 project could be completed in 10 years and would provide a new home for both Adult Probation and Pre-Trial Services, which are currently housed in the Executive Office Building at West 13th and San Antonio streets. That structure is currently undergoing an extensive renovation but could ultimately be sold, demolished or redeveloped. Powell said the property could support 280,000 square feet of building space, or more than four times the size of the current building.

A separate expansion plan in the works will also free up space at another downtown property. Powell told commissioners that the county’s Health and Human Services and Veteran Services flagship office at 100 N IH-35 is considering relocation to the Travis County North Campus on Airport Boulevard, pending the future build-out of the facility. Powell noted that the site on the southeastern edge of downtown Austin has the potential to support 1 million square feet of developable space.

Staff included six other properties in the presentation, ranging from a downtown filling station on North Lamar Boulevard to a solid waste transfer station next to the Hill Country Galleria. The range of possibilities for each property is as broad as their geography, but Commissioner Margaret Gómez sounded a note left unsung in the first half of the briefing.

“I also wonder if these properties could not be developed for affordable housing,” she mused.

That drew an enthusiastic nod from Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Commissioner Brigid Shea quickly added, “It should be a real priority for any of the county properties where it’s at all feasible.”

After Powell and Gilbert wrapped up their presentation, Commissioner Ron Davis expressed his discomfort that the Facilities Management Division was not involved in the assessment of the properties.

“This is looking at the long-term,” Powell explained. “As you give direction on what you want to see, they would, of course, come into the process. This is an opportunity to highlight the properties.”

That answer didn’t satisfy Davis. “Since it is talking about the development potential, the Facilities Management Division, who oversees the facilities in Travis County, it appears to me that they ought to be sitting at that table with you. That’s the way it appears to me. And they’re not there. And that’s a concern of mine.”

Commissioners continued the discussion on the item in executive session but did not take any decisive action.

This post has been updated to reflect the accurate size of block 126. It is 1.75 acres, not 175 acres as initially reported

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