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Travis County committed to downtown courthouse

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The downtown block at the center of Travis County’s proposed Civil & Family Courts Complex proposal won’t necessarily be freed up for private development if voters reject the $287 million bond today.

Opposition to the proposal has sprouted from downtown advocates, including the Real Estate Council of Austin, which argues that dedicating a large portion of the block at West Fourth Street and Guadalupe to government affairs will doom a prime parcel to lifeless inactivity after normal business hours.

Travis County Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the Austin Monitor that if voters shoot down the bonds, the county isn’t likely to cut and run on the property.

“I challenge the assumption that if the election result is not positive that we will be selling the site and looking elsewhere,” Powell wrote in an email to the Monitor. “There are ways for us to move forward on the same site and not have wasted all of the funds already invested in the project concept.”

The county zeroed in on the downtown site after years of weighing its options with properties across Austin. Ultimately, planners chose the site for, among other things, its central location, rich access to public transit and minimal restrictions on building height.

The county is also planning to let a private developer build a second office tower on the south side of the block. The revenue from the ground lease on that project would help offset the cost of the courthouse. The second tower would also contribute to property tax rolls for several years until the county’s planned takeover of the building.

Powell said that that project, along with an underground parking garage, could still move forward even if voters say no to the courthouse bonds.

“Every day we delay, costs are added to both of these projects, just like the Civil & Family Courts Complex,” Powell wrote. “So I will be spending a great deal of time in November discussing options with the Commissioners Court on how to save as much as possible on the timing of expenditures and potential revenues that can still, perhaps more directly, offset the costs associated with providing the needed courts structure.”

Should voters reject the courthouse bonds, RECA President Ward Tisdale said he wants to be part of the postmortem discussion, too. Tisdale told the Monitor that he is committed to persuading the county to divest itself of the downtown property.

“If the bond fails, we would engage the county to try to help find the best location of the courthouse,” Tisdale said. He also took a swipe at the plan for the south tower.

“It’s a bit of a smokescreen, to be honest,” said Tisdale. “It’s still not maximizing potential tax revenue if it was sold by the county to a private entity.”

While the stakes are high, it seems that only a tiny fraction of Travis County voters are actually interested. According to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, only 27,145 residents took advantage of two weeks’ worth of early voting. That’s less than 5 percent of a rapidly growing county with an 84-year-old civil courthouse.

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