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County moves to add new courthouse to its collection

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

In its quest to relieve overcrowding at the 85-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, Travis County is turning its eyes to a younger building: the 81-year-old U.S. Courthouse at 200 W. Eighth St.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court voted 4-0 to move forward in the process to try to take the building off the hands of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that currently claims it.

The GSA has deemed the building a surplus property, which makes it eligible to be passed on to a local government with no upfront cost. According to Travis County officials, the GSA will soon start taking applications from entities interested in acquiring the property. In addition to local governments, the GSA can also consider applications from groups that provide services for the homeless.

The 60,000-square-foot building could provide relief for the 152,000-square-foot Sweatt building. However, it falls far short of the 511,000-square-foot facility that the county put before voters last November. That plan narrowly lost, thanks in part to its $287 million price tag and also to the proposed location at 300 Guadalupe St.

On Tuesday afternoon, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt portrayed the potential acquisition of the U.S. Courthouse as not much more than a short-term Band-Aid for the county’s civil courthouse capacity conundrum.

“It doesn’t solve the whole problem, but it is a release valve,” Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor. “And it preserves a beautiful building in downtown Austin.”

Indeed, the U.S. Courthouse would provide a new set of problems for a county already struggling with one octogenarian hall of justice. Even though there would be no purchase involved, the county would be on the hook for renovating and repairing the historic building.

“Ultimately, there are large pieces of this building that are protected and that we will not be able to change, including one historic courtroom,” Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning.

Powell also said that there is no hard deadline for the county to turn in an application to the GSA, but she urged quick action. In order to expedite the process, she requested that the court allow staff to work with the architectural firm Gensler Austin on the application process.

That process requires a preservation plan, cost estimates and declared commitments to the use and maintenance of the building’s historical features. Conveniently, Gensler Austin recently conducted a study of the U.S. Courthouse at the request of the federal government, and its findings could be used to give the county a substantial head start on its application.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17316321

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