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Travis County’s courthouse plan B hinges on homeless support group’s failure

Friday, October 7, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A nonprofit that supports homeless residents in Austin could dash Travis County’s short-term plans to accommodate its bulging civil courts needs.

Members of the citizens advisory committee that is guiding the search for new court capacity learned on Wednesday night that Front Steps had submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to take over the U.S. courthouse at West Eighth and Lavaca streets.

Under the federal law that dictates how the government dispenses with surplus property, Front Steps’ request to take control of the 81-year-old building will receive priority over the county’s interest.

Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell reported to the committee that the relevant federal agencies will spend the next several weeks determining whether Front Steps’ application is complete and its proposal is appropriate.

“Right now, my understanding from the (General Services Administration) is we’re 30 to 45 days from hearing if we can submit our application,” Powell said. “The good news is that we’re not slowing down on anything, and we are on schedule to be prepared to submit our app in mid-November if we hear we’re able to do that.”

Powell did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Front Steps Executive Director Mitchell Gibbs told the Austin Monitor that his organization, which operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, is the only service provider for homeless residents that submitted an application for the property. He also explained the nonprofit’s vision for the courthouse.

“We and other homeless service providers took a look at the building and talked to architects with the idea that perhaps that property might be best utilized as apartments and rental units for persons who had formerly experienced homelessness,” he said.

Gibbs noted that Front Steps has not yet formally commissioned an architect and that the plans are still in the preliminary phase. However, he offered as a ballpark estimate that the project could create up to 50 housing units inside the 60,000-square-foot courthouse.

He also said that the nonprofit has not yet reached out to stakeholders in the area, including residents of the Brown Building lofts on the other side of West Eighth Street. Gibbs said that if the feds approve Front Steps’ application, the group will initiate that “community conversation.” In the meantime, he tried to get in front of any concerns.

“We would look at the property as being permanent supportive housing,” said Gibbs. “It’s not going to be a service delivery site like Caritas or Trinity Center. It’s going to be housing, and it would look and function like any other apartment complex.”

If the nonprofit ends up securing ownership of the courthouse, it would create another headache for Powell’s team of county planners who are looking to relieve pressure on the aging Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse. The Commissioners Court in May approved the idea to seek control of the U.S. courthouse. At the time, Powell indicated that the county’s probate courts could fit inside the historic building.

The need for short-term solutions to the county’s capacity problem was made more urgent when voters rejected a $287 million bond to build a new civil courts complex at 308 Guadalupe St. Since then, the citizens advisory committee has been diligently working to review other potential properties that could serve as the site of the 85-year-old Sweatt building’s replacement.

On Wednesday night, the committee weeded out several more possibilities, including both county-owned and privately held sites.

Most notably, the committee rejected Blocks 126 and 134, which are both adjacent to the Sweatt courthouse on Guadalupe Street. Both sites are encumbered by Capitol view corridors. In August, state Sen. Kirk Watson announced in a letter to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt that he would not fight his fellow legislators for an exemption to those corridors.

The decision to remove Blocks 126 and 134 from consideration means that the seat of civil justice in Travis County will be located outside of the shadow of the state Capitol for the first time since the Sweatt building’s predecessor was built at 11th Street and Congress Avenue in 1876. Prior to that, the courthouse was at the 308 Guadalupe St. site.

The committee also removed from contention the county’s North Campus property at E. 53½ Street and Airport Boulevard, as well as its South Campus property near Oltorf Street and South Congress Avenue. Three other undisclosed privately owned properties were removed as well.

Still in the running after Wednesday is 700 Lavaca St., the current home of the Commissioners Court and several county departments. Options for the building include demolishing it and building a new structure, or adding courthouse capacity onto its existing plaza. In addition, the committee passed on to the next level of examination three other private properties, whose locations are being withheld from the public. However, discussion among the committee Wednesday revealed that at least one of them is on Ben White Boulevard, while another is proximate to what one committee member identified as an “X-rated bar.”

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