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County keeps controversial property in courthouse hunt

Thursday, June 23, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has revised the list of properties in their hunt for a new civil courthouse site, and one parcel that remains in the running is the one that voters rejected last November.

Based on recommendations from both county staff and a citizens committee guiding the process, the court voted Tuesday to advance 308 Guadalupe St. along with several other properties to the next level of scrutiny.

In November, just under 51 percent of voters denied the county’s $287 million bond proposition that would have built a 14-story courthouse on that site. Opponents of that plan decried it as a waste of prime downtown real estate.

Despite that, the property ranked highest among the five sites initially under consideration by the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which is using an evaluation matrix approved by the court in February.

“308 Guadalupe is included as a benchmark against which the CAC will evaluate other locations for civil and family courts,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor in an email on Tuesday. “Travis County still plans to offer 308 Guadalupe for private development later this year.”

Indeed, the court voted in May to instruct staff to prepare to start soliciting proposals for the property from private developers. That process could begin as early as next week.

Along with 308 Guadalupe St., the court voted to move three other sites from the initial “fatal flaw” tier of evaluation. One is 700 Lavaca St., which currently houses the Commissioners Court as well as several other county departments, including the Planning and Budget Office, the County Auditor’s Office, Transportation and Natural Resources and the tiny but important Intergovernmental Relations Office.

Also moving forward is Block 126, which is the site of the University Savings Building just to the west of the Governor’s Mansion between Lavaca and Guadalupe streets. Development on the property is severely restricted due to several Capitol view corridors overlaying the property.

“It, by itself, would not measure up and shouldn’t proceed forward,” explained Matias Segura of AECOM, the county’s consultant on the courthouse project. “But when you couple that with Block 134, the half-block where the Granger Building is at, you then begin to come up with a viable solution.” The Granger Building is just to the north of Block 126, across West 11th St.

Struck from contention as a potential courthouse site was the San Antonio Garage at West 10th and San Antonio streets.

“That was really based on the fact that the footprint of the lot available to us wouldn’t really support a court building, especially when you add on the programming that’s already been identified for that site,” Segura told the court. The San Antonio Garage has been pegged by county planners as the future home of a new central booking facility.

As those sites matriculate to the next round of evaluation, the court has also tapped two other county-owned properties for the CAC and staff to run through the matrix: the government’s South Campus complex at South Congress Avenue and West Oltorf Street, and its North Campus complex at East 53rd ½ Street and Airport Boulevard.

Plans are already underway to transform a large empty tract on the North Campus into a mixed-use project that would contain affordable housing as well as offices for the County Department of Health and Human Services and Veteran Services.

Before last year’s election, opponents of the proposed downtown location for the courthouse questioned why the county couldn’t instead build the project on the North Campus. Segura acknowledged that question, as well as the fact that plans are already underway to build affordable housing and offices for the County Department of Health and Human Services and Veteran Services on that site.

“We recognize that on North Campus there’s already been a lot of action, but the CAC believes that, optically, the public may want us to take it through this type of analysis,” said Segura.

After discussing the matters in executive session, the court returned to vote on three motions based on staff recommendations. The first tweaked the evaluation matrix and moved the previous sites to the next level of consideration, the second added three unidentified non-county properties to the evaluation process and the third added North Campus and South Campus to the process.

Eckhardt and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voted in favor of all three motions, while Commissioner Ron Davis voted against them. Commissioner Margaret Gomez abstained on each and Commissioner Brigid Shea was absent. The 2-1-1 votes were enough to approve the motions.

Just before voting on the second motion, Eckhardt explained that details about the non-county properties would not be revealed in open court. Daugherty replied, “The only thing is, the media is going to run up here afterwards and go, ‘Which ones are those?’”

After the votes, the Austin Monitor dutifully approached the dais to ask for more details on the secret properties, but both Eckhardt and Daugherty politely demurred.

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