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County planners pledge to keep courthouse block “alive after five”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Anxiety is palpable this week at 700 Lavaca St., where Travis County officials and planners nervously wait as early voters cast their ballots to decide the fate of the $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond.

While the Travis County Taxpayers Union, with its late but not unexpected organized opposition to the bond, is providing some of the jitters, a murkier concern is rising over how well people are taking the idea of converting a block of prime downtown real estate into government facilities.

“If you make that block into a courthouse, then there are three blocks in downtown that are dark at night,” Barry Lewis, a member of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, told the Austin Monitor last week. While DANA hasn’t taken an official position on the proposal to build the courthouse at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets, Lewis said that he fears the development – much like the William P. Hobby State Office Building and parking garage that flank it – would be lifeless after business hours.

“That’s not good for downtown. It’s not good for the residents. It’s not good for the businesses. It’s not good for the public in general, who we want to come downtown,” he said.

Lewis said that he would rather see a private, mixed-use development built on the site, one that would complement the bustling urban activity on Second and Third streets. While he concedes that the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse that would be replaced by the new building is overcrowded, Lewis said the county should look to its properties along Airport Boulevard.

“The rail line goes by there,” said Lewis. “A number of bus lines go by there. The old mall is being redeveloped as ACC. I think it would be an economic engine for that area.”

County planners have said that they did consider Airport Boulevard as a potential location of the courthouse but ultimately decided in favor of the downtown location in part because of its central location and abundant access to public transit. They’ve also responded to concerns about the courthouse’s lack of after-hours activity by penciling in promises of keeping it “alive after 5:00,” including allowances for ground-floor retail.

“In all candor, that’s likely to be some sort of restaurant or food-service type of facility,” Strategic Resource Planning Manager Belinda Powell divulged to the Monitor on Monday morning. “It could be that there’s something else, some other kind of shop, but most likely for the limited amount of space in the court building itself, it probably will be some sort of restaurant.”

Powell said the idea is to have the business open out to the street. She cited as an example the Austin Java cafe in the back corner of City Hall.

Another option on the table is using a large multipurpose room as a black-box theater for after-hours performances. Powell pointed again to the city of Austin, this time using as an example the theater at the Mexican American Cultural Center.

There is, of course, also the matter of a second, privately developed tower that has been attached to the courthouse proposal. The plan calls for signing a private firm to a ground lease and letting it build the second tower on the block just south of the proposed courthouse.

Last week, at the Travis County Taxpayers Union press conference, City Council Member Don Zimmerman dismissed the idea, saying that it “sounds like a lot of speculation, and there’s no guarantee that that development could take place.”

On Monday, Powell assured the Monitor that the county is still very committed to the second tower and that county attorneys are currently drafting new policy guidelines by which to operate the eventual ground lease. She said that once that’s done, the county will start soliciting developers to send in their proposals.

Powell said that if all goes according to plan and voters approve the bond in November, both projects could be ready to break ground as early as next April.

Photo by Dan Keshet

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