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Courthouse committee seeks Commissioners Court’s guidance

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said on Tuesday that the current gold standard of potential sites for a new civil courthouse is another county-owned property in downtown Austin.

“I do understand that, at least in the tier one analysis, it’s actually this building and the associated garage that rank highest,” Eckhardt said, referring to the county’s headquarters at 700 Lavaca St. and the parking garage just to the north.

Eckhardt’s comments came during a discussion of the ongoing quest to find a replacement for the 85-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. Julia Spann, the chairwoman of the community advisory committee that is guiding the search, appeared before the court to ask for input on four key questions that she said have inspired “hearty debate and discussion” among her committee members.

“The four of them are: location outside the central business district, the number of sites that we will evaluate, the scope and cost of the new courthouse and the Capitol View Corridor,” Spann told the court.

In consideration of Spann’s request for guidance on the geographical breadth of the search, Commissioner Brigid Shea herself asked for guidance from county staff.

Strategic Resource Planning Manager Belinda Powell reminded the court that a key factor for any property is its access to frequent bus service. “Where you have established or growing development where bus routes are expanding quickly or already exist is really where you’re going to see the sites that we can look at,” Powell said.

Indeed, in making their case, one of the arguments used last year by supporters of the county’s failed $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond package was the proposed site’s proximity to a trove of transit lines. The proposal would have planted the new courthouse at 300 Guadalupe St., across the street from one of Capital Metro’s busiest bus arteries at Republic Square Park.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty used the failed bond as an argument for extending the search’s scope far beyond downtown. He offered that voters rejected the proposition in part because of its price tag and also in part because of its location. He suggested that the county should be considering a scaled-down plan that would drastically cut costs but also leave room for future expansions. He also insisted that, despite access to available transit services, a downtown courthouse would come with a singular liability.

“Parking is always going to be a problem,” Daugherty declared. “I mean, everybody knows nobody wants to come downtown. You would rather have a root canal instead.”

Commissioner Margaret Gómez concurred with Daugherty, saying, “I think we need to listen to the voters.”

Eckhardt offered as an answer to Spann’s original question that county staff had already determined to look at “no less than three and not more than five” sites outside of the Central Business District. Those properties would then be weighed “to see if they are cost effective in competition with the properties that we have inside the CBD,” which includes 700 Lavaca St., she said.

As Eckhardt pointed out, that property had graduated at the top of the tier one analysis, but Powell explained that things could change as the projects move through to the third and final stage of study.

As for the potential scope and cost of the project, Spann said that some of her committee members are interested in a scaled-down vision similar to the one offered by Daugherty. Others, she said, are wary about not having a “hall of justice that reflects the importance of the work being done in that building.”

Eckhardt said that the county is not necessarily known for “gilding the lily” but added that she would like to “develop a reputation for attractive, highly functioning and historically significant civic spaces.”

Members of the court expressed far more skepticism about Spann’s report of the committee’s interest in making a stronger effort to overcome the Legislature’s intransigence when it comes to the Capitol View Corridors. The county-owned site across the street from the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse is heavily encumbered by several protected Capitol views that limit building height on most of the property to no more than one story.

Eckhardt said that she sees the value in asking the Legislature to grant an exception for a building in which state business would be conducted. “On the other hand, it’s a very, very high hill to climb,” she said. “And it could kick open the door for further exceptions that I would not at all be in favor of, not the least of which is the view corridor from the Zilker Clubhouse.”

Daugherty said he would be supportive of an attempt to overcome the corridor issue but added that he isn’t very hopeful of success. Nonetheless, Eckhardt said she would sit down soon in a meeting with state Sen. Kirk Watson to discuss the possibilities of asking for an exception.

Spann told her, “I think the committee would appreciate that conversation. And we absolutely understand the difficulties and the can of worms that it could open.”

The next community advisory committee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m.

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