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Capitol view corridor dashes longshot hopes for county courthouse plan

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Texas Legislature has no interest in helping Travis County build a new civil courthouse across the street from its existing one if it means blocking protected views of the State Capitol, according to state Sen. Kirk Watson.

“I don’t think there is any good chance that you would pass legislation that would do away with Capitol view corridors,” Watson told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday, referring to the 30 imposed development ceilings that limit building heights in order to preserve vantages of the Capitol dome.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt had reached out to Watson earlier this month in order to gauge legislative interest in relaxing the restrictions on one or more of the three corridors that sweep over the county-owned Block 126 at West 11th and Guadalupe streets. Block 126 sits just to the east of the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse and has for years been eyed as a potential home for that 85-year-old building’s replacement.

However, three Capitol view corridors limit development on the property, including one that terminates at nearby Wooldridge Square. That particular corridor limits any construction on part of Block 126 to no higher than 11 feet, according to a city of Austin Downtown Commission report published in 2007.

The county maintains two small buildings on the site, while the rest of it is used for surface parking. After voters last November turned down a plan to build a $287 million court complex down the road at 308 Guadalupe St., interest in Block 126 was rekindled.

Earlier this month, the community advisory group providing input on the search for a new proposal asked the court to explore interest in relieving the view corridors over Block 126. At the time, members of the court expressed skepticism that the idea would gain any traction. Nonetheless, Eckhardt pledged to reach out to Watson to sound him out.

On Tuesday, Watson told the Monitor that, even though the Legislature has exempted projects in three separate corridors in the past – including one to accommodate for the expansion of the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium – the idea is essentially a nonstarter.

“I think we need to be preserving Capitol views as opposed to eliminating Capitol views, and that’s my personal view, but in addition to that, even if that weren’t my personal view, I don’t think that it’s a likelihood you’re going to pass that legislation,” Watson said.

Despite that opinion, Watson insisted that he remains supportive of the county’s effort to build badly needed civil courthouse capacity.

This story has been corrected to reflect that projects, not corridors, have been exempted from the Capitol view corridor requirements in the past.

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