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Commissioners keep parking garage plans alive

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to keep the three new levels of underground parking that had been designed to accompany the planned district attorney’s office in downtown Austin.

The decision to approve the proposed $3.05 million garage beneath the future Ronnie Earle Building came just before lunch during Tuesday’s voting session.

It was an epilogue of sorts to the roller-coaster planning process for the future headquarters of the Travis County district attorney’s office, which will stand at West 11th and San Antonio streets. Two weeks ago, in a 3-2 vote, commissioners narrowly saved the entire project from the ash heap after overcoming concerns about its ballooning budget. However, included in that motion was a stipulation to revisit and reconsider the underground parking garage.

That plan calls for three levels of vehicle storage with 140 parking spaces. Under an existing agreement, the newly rebuilt Texas PTA headquarters next door will lease 20 of those spaces.

The project’s location is conspicuous for its proximity to Capital Metro’s busiest transit corridor along Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, the bus artery that features multiple routes, including the MetroRapid service that traverses downtown in transit-priority lanes. After the vote, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor that planners had taken bus service into account and were able to reduce the scale of the proposed garage because of it. In addition, she pointed out that the county still has an obligation to provide at least some parking.

“There’s not sufficient county-owned parking available for jurors who are coming in from far corners of the county where bus service wouldn’t be possible,” Eckhardt said. “Or jurors who are coming that have children and don’t want to take a bus for fear that they might have to leave early and pick up kids.”

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg appeared at the meeting to urge the commissioners to approve the garage. She explained that her employees and their visitors face concerns unique to her office.

“It’s a security issue for us. We have ongoing concerns about security,” Lehmberg said. “We don’t have a place for visitors to park, and we have problems with jurors and witnesses and things like that.”

Facilities Management Director Roger El-Khoury seconded the security issues. He also highlighted the per-space cost of the garage, which comes in at approximately $22,000.

“Which is great for underground parking,” he said. “Really, I highly recommend that we go forward and build the garage because this is a great price.”

Despite the ringing endorsement from staff members, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who opposed the building two weeks ago, clearly had not softened his stance. He asked representatives from Flintco — the firm hired to build the district attorney’s office — if they could guarantee that the price of the garage would not exceed the current estimate.

“I don’t think we can for that amount,” a Flintco representative told him.

“We’re crazy to do it then,” Daugherty responded.

Regardless, Commissioner Ron Davis made the motion to keep the plans intact, and Commissioner Margaret Gómez seconded it.

A small note of drama rang out when, after Commissioner Brigid Shea voiced her staunch opposition to the parking garage based on budget concerns, Eckhardt began to explain her position.

“I did not support of the purchase of the property. I did not support the moving forward on this particular building,” Eckhardt declared, then took a beat before continuing. “However, a majority of this court moved forward. … I must put my previous positions with regard to this project in the past and leave them in the past. And move forward for the best deal for the taxpayer, based on what’s before us.” Eckhardt indicated that this deal was the plan before them.

The court then voted for final approval of the garage, with both Daugherty and Shea opposed.


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