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County reboots civil courthouse project

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Less than three months after voters rejected a nine-figure bond to build a new civil courthouse, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to effectively reboot the process that had been more than 15 years in the making.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Ron Davis off the dais, approved a modification to the county’s contract with its consultant, AECOM, to direct the firm to start examining new sites that could play host to the proposed facility.

In November, a bare majority of voters shot down the $287 million bond that would have funded construction of the courthouse on county-owned land downtown at 300 Guadalupe St. County planners had selected that site for the courthouse project after years of thoroughly surveying other potential properties. However, one of the more resounding arguments heard in the runup to November’s election was that a government building would be a significant under-utilization of one of the last undeveloped blocks in the central business district.

With its new marching orders, AECOM will work with county staff on a new and much quicker round of site analyses. The contract calls for examinations of up to 10 different properties to be completed and presented to the Commissioners Court by mid-May.

After the vote, Belinda Powell of the county’s Planning and Budget Office declined to reveal a complete list of potential sites, but she did let one slip when she told the Austin Monitor that her team will reconsider a number of alternative properties that were suggested by voters before the election.

“We were deeply challenged over Block 126, which is the University Savings building site right behind the Governor’s Mansion,” Powell explained. “We’ll probably evaluate that again and look at what would have to change and what the cost parameters are around those changes, what are the risks associated with those changes – because there is a risk associated with pursuing a Capitol View Corridor variance if it’s unsuccessful.”

That block – bound by 10th and 11th streets on the south and north and by Guadalupe and Lavaca streets on the west and east – is encumbered by three separate Capitol View Corridors, which limit the potential height of a development and also require an act of the Legislature to avoid.

That sort of regulatory overlay is just one of several factors that AECOM will consider as part of the criteria matrix by which it analyzes potential sites. Another factor is transportation access, a significant reason Commissioner Gerald Daugherty insisted that the team weigh options outside of the central business district.

“Let’s make sure that this thing is something that’s not just downtown,” said Daugherty, “because the one thing that we’ve got to be able to get away from, even if we’re not talking about 3rd and Guadalupe, is the fact that mobility in getting downtown – I mean, I don’t care how many bike lanes, how many tricycle lanes, whatever else you come to these buildings in – it doesn’t make any difference, because the central city is the busiest part. That was one of those things that people just went kind of cuckoo about.”

As for the property at 300 Guadalupe St., AECOM has also been tasked with looking at potential uses for that site. According to the presentation given by Powell, the short list of options includes a straight sale of the land or any leasing opportunities.

The county will pay AECOM $234,400 for the new site analysis work, bringing the total payments made to the firm since it was first hired in 2014 to $3,689,173. AECOM is scheduled to present its final findings to the Commissioners Court on two separate meetings this spring, on May 10 and May 17.

Noting the tall task ahead, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt closed discussion on Tuesday’s vote by declaring, “I will just say we are totally going back to zero. We are looking at this with fresh eyes.”

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