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Courthouse proposal gets shut down in committee

Thursday, September 24, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A city proposal to relocate the county courthouse from downtown to East Austin didn’t gain any traction at the Audit and Finance Committee on Wednesday, but it did spark a heated conversation.

Though City Council Member Ellen Troxclair moved to approve the resolution, she did not receive a second. The resolution will not move on to Council unless Council Member Don Zimmerman can find more sponsors for it. Right now, his only co-sponsor is Council Member Ora Houston. Both were present at the committee meeting, though neither are members of the committee.

Genevieve Van Cleve, who is the leader of the campaign supporting the bond package for the Travis County Civil & Family Courts Complex, stressed the need for a new courthouse to replace the current one, which was built in 1931. She also emphasized that the county has been working on the proposal in earnest since 2009.

“This is a county, constitutionally mandated project. This is not actually a city project, nor is it a city building,” said Van Cleve. “This is a well-considered county project with support from Republicans and Democrats. … I would encourage city folks that have questions about this project – of a fellow governmental entity – to reach out to them.”

Van Cleve “strongly encouraged” the city not to involve itself in the placement of a county building, saying, “It belies, in my mind, common sense.”

Houston said that she had reached out to County Commissioner Ron Davis but had not heard back, and did not realize she could talk to Van Cleve.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she was interested in both how to leverage the land assets of the city and how to work creatively with fellow municipalities. However, she said she wasn’t sure this particular resolution was a good use of city resources, given that Travis County had already made a decision.

Council Member Leslie Pool said that the county courthouse was “the wrong target” for thinking about economic development in the city’s Eastern Crescent.

“The courthouse is under the sole jurisdiction of Travis County. The city doesn’t have any partnership agreement with the county on this. They operate it, they plan it, they fund it and they run it,” said Pool, who added that asking the city manager to identify parcels was an expensive proposition that involved more than looking at the map.

The issue of whether the city has, or should have, any say about a county project was the question at the heart of the debate. However, most of the conversation during the meeting concerned whether the courthouse should be located downtown. Though it veered into the November election on occasion, Tovo did her best to keep the conversation on track – and civil.

Zimmerman said that a month ago, which is when he started working on the ordinance, there would have been time to put it on the November ballot, but now it is too late. The Travis County commissioners voted in August to put their bond package to build the courthouse at Fourth and Guadalupe streets on the ballot.

The main thrust of Zimmerman’s arguments concerned the cost of the project. He pointed out that a residential project on the county’s land could bring in $87 million over 40 years, unlike a courthouse. He did not speak to a proposed south tower of the project, which would be privately developed.

Zimmerman also said that “he had been assured” that a comparable building built in East Austin would cost one-half to one-third of the cost to build downtown. Van Cleve disagreed. Zimmerman said that he had hoped to include testimony to this effect, but the “busy professionals” could not make it to the meeting.

Houston framed the discussion in terms of economic development and employment in East Austin. According to Houston, the push to build a courthouse in East Austin came from the community and started in 2013.

“It seemed appropriate at this point to at least have that conversation so that if something like this comes up in the future, we will try to look outside of our box,” said Houston. “I just want the city to consider placement of the courthouse in an area outside of downtown.”

Though courthouse bond supporters have pointed out that 54 bus routes run near the proposed site, Houston also argued that the proposal to relocate the courthouse was about access, imagining that the hypothetical East Austin courthouse would have free parking, as opposed to the yet-built downtown courthouse, which she supposed would have “exorbitant parking fees.”

As for the public transit options, Houston said, “Capital Metro reroutes buses all the time.”

Van Cleve explained that extensive community outreach and communication with places such as SafePlace showed that people needed a centrally located courthouse that could be reached by public transit and was in close proximity to the city’s other courts.

Van Cleve also said that a place for incarcerated people, where families are broken up and foster kids and children are cared for, “is not a symbol for East Austin” or a great means of economic development.

A clearly agitated Houston responded, saying, “On behalf of the citizens of District 1, I want to thank you for telling us what’s best for us.”

Photo by Steve made available through a Creative Commons license.

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