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Courthouse committee winnows options for eventual house of justice

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County’s search for a new site for a civil courthouse could soon narrow in on the final two candidates: a private property versus the county’s current administrative headquarters at 700 Lavaca St.

On Wednesday night, the Civil and Family Courts Community Advisory Committee voted to endorse an undisclosed private property for the Commissioners Court to consider in its final deliberations.

A separate vote to recommend replacing the county’s administrative headquarters with a new courthouse and office complex came up short of the majority needed to pass. However, the Planning and Budget Office’s Belinda Powell told the Austin Monitor that staff would likely recommend that the court consider that option as well.

Wednesday’s meeting was the final hurrah for this latest iteration of a citizens committee to guide the county’s efforts to replace the 85-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. The group first convened in March, following the narrow loss in November 2015 of a $287 million bond that would have paid for a new courts complex at 308 Guadalupe St.

The committee specifically voted to ask the Commissioners Court to prioritize two separate configurations of the private property. However, details on what those two options entail remain scarce. County staff and the county’s consultant on the project, AECOM, are maintaining tight secrecy around all of the property’s identifying information in order to preserve the county’s bargaining position in the event of a future purchase.

Each scenario that the Commissioners Court could end up considering – whether to purchase new land or tear down the county’s own 12-story downtown tower – will heap a significant cost onto a project whose price tag could play a make-or-break role.

Critics of the failed 2015 plan hammered it as an extravagantly expensive Taj Mahal of justice. Supporters warned that the cost of constructing a new courthouse would only increase the longer the effort was delayed.

At least one of the options the Commissioners Court could consider seems to bear that prediction out. According to AECOM’s Matias Segura, the tab for replacing the county’s administrative headquarters with a new courthouse, along with offices to house existing tenants there, could run as high as $377 million. That amount includes an estimated $40 million just to cover temporary leases for displaced county workers during the complex’s four-year construction cycle.

“That’s just the reality of what it’s going to take to build a courthouse,” said Committee Member James Bradbury after the vote. “Although I wish that number was lower, there’s no way to do it. And I think the public needs to hear from us that we accomplished all these efficiencies, we ground these numbers down, we looked at all these sites, and honestly, true to God, that’s what it’s going to take to build a courthouse.”

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