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Travis County cements $291.6M bond election

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 by Gene Davis

In what Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis called the largest brick-and-mortar initiative referendum in the history of Travis County, the court approved setting the bond for construction of the planned Civil and Family Courthouse project at $291.6 million. Voters will weigh in on the bond in the November election.

Commissioners set the $291.6 million bond price tag after voting the previous week to hold the election in November instead of May. Plans for the facility call for a 14-story, 511,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms and a 500-space underground parking garage.

“This is a really big deal for Travis County,” Davis said.

The new facility, which would replace the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse at 1000 Guadalupe St., is planned for the intersection of Fourth and Guadalupe streets. The current courthouse is 84 years old and considered outdated and undersized.

Prior to holding a vote on the bond amount, commissioners heard why proposed alternative sites for the courthouse — namely, on Airport Boulevard near the existing Travis County Tax Office and the historic Palm School site near the intersection of the I-35 service road and Cesar Chavez— faced significant issues. Several commissioners had previously expressed concern that some business interests would oppose a new courthouse being built on prime downtown land at Fourth and Guadalupe and protest the project.

In explaining why she believed this location to be the best available option, Belinda Powell, strategic planning manager for the Planning and Budget Office, said that a courthouse at the Airport Boulevard site would grossly exceed the City of Austin’s established height restrictions, eliminate the potential for affordable housing on the property and be less accessible by public transit. She said the historic designation of part of the Palm School site on Cesar Chavez Street could hamper construction efforts and make it unfeasible to build an underground parking garage.

Meanwhile, Powell continued, the Fourth and Guadalupe site is one of the most accessible locations in all of Travis County and would allow for adequate parking. George Tapas, national practice manager with URS Corporation, added that the location had originally been planned to hold a courthouse since as far back as 1839 and was home to a jail from 1855 to 1874.

Following Powell’s and Tapas’ presentation, commissioners overall seemed satisfied with the logic behind choosing the Fourth and Guadalupe location.

“We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us, but I think the openness of this approach is something the voters should hopefully appreciate,” Davis said.

Tapas said the original estimate for the new courthouse was $350 million, but that figure had been cut down to $291.6 million. He said the proposed construction costs are based on industry standards.

The courthouse has been in planning for nearly six years.

“I think this discussion has laid out a lot of things, and we can eliminate a lot of doubt in people’s minds,” Davis said following the presentation. “We have a serious challenge among us, but they’ve laid out a good scenario.”

Photo by Heather Katsoulis

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