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County considers, delays action on mixed-use development

Friday, December 11, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Seeking a united front, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt delayed action at Commissioners Court on Tuesday on an innovative mixed-use development project in North Central Austin.

The agenda called for the court to vote on whether to send out a request for proposals, or RFP, from private developers for the project at 5325 and 5335 Airport Blvd. Eckhardt postponed the decision for one week in order to allow the full court to vote on it. Commissioner Brigid Shea on Tuesday was still in France, where she had attended a United Nations summit on climate change. Shea returned to Austin on Wednesday.

In explaining her reason for the delay, Eckhardt said several voices from the community have questioned why the county isn’t considering the property as a potential site for a new civil courthouse.

“I believe it’s important for the community to understand our analysis of the property and how we arrived at this plan for the property, and to show clearly what the support is from the dais for the program,” Eckhardt said.

Her decision inspired stringent opposition from Commissioner Ron Davis, who accused Eckhardt of “orchestrating an unnecessary delay” on a project that he has been shepherding for years.

“We have gone over and over with it again,” Davis complained. “It’s a great opportunity for the county to finally figure out ways of how we can bring another means of affordable housing to this community. So again, you delayed it before, you are delaying it now, it has been delayed forever, it looks like. … We just have to act on this.”

Indeed, redevelopment of the site, which is part of the larger North Campus, has moved at a snail’s pace for some time. Until the purchase in 2010 of the current headquarters at 700 Lavaca St., the county originally intended to make North Campus the primary seat of government. Since then, planners have put together a vision for the mixed-use project. Meanwhile, the campus remains an important center of county operations and houses the Sheriff’s Office Central Command. The County Clerk and the Tax Office also share a large building there.

Mark Gilbert of the Planning and Budget Office told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that work has been underway since 2012 to prepare for the release of the RFP. He said that “the main hang-up was basically trying to put together a cross-departmental, cross-agency team to work on a project that was entirely new for Travis County.”

The fruits of that intensive work, which also earned support for the plan from both the Ridgetop and Northfield Neighborhood Associations, have convinced Eckhardt that the site would not be a suitable candidate for a new civil courthouse. The North Campus has been discussed as an alternative to the downtown site, at Fourth and Guadalupe streets, which would have been home to the civil courts complex, but voters narrowly rejected it in the November bond vote.

Strategic Resource Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the commissioners on Tuesday that a courthouse there would “overwhelm the property.”

She elaborated: “This project that’s being proposed is very compatible with the uses that are there, keeping the general government designation for the site, bringing in services to the site, working within the transit nodes that are already there and the streets that are already there.”

Currently, 5325 and 5335 Airport Blvd. is an empty lot that serves as overflow parking for staffers and visitors to the busy campus. However, the draft RFP for the two parcels outlines a progressive vision that includes more than 50,000 square feet of office space and at least 150 residential units, an unspecified number of which will be set aside for low-income tenants.

The development would be the new home of the flagship offices of both the Tax Office and the Health and Human Services and Veteran Services Department, which is currently located at the downtown Palm School building. The complex would sit across the road from the location where, according to the draft RFP, Capital Metro is considering a brand-new station for its struggling commuter rail line that runs along that stretch of Airport Boulevard.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty agreed that the property is “highly unlikely to be a courthouse site.” He also agreed with Davis that delaying the RFP another week didn’t make much sense, but he deferred to Eckhardt’s prerogative to postpone action.

Eckhardt closed the discussion by assuring her colleagues that she would bring the item back up for a vote at the court’s next meeting, on Dec. 15.

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