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Feds clear county’s path to new old courthouse

Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is one step closer to claiming ownership of a historic federal courthouse in downtown Austin.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rejected homeless advocacy group Front Steps’ bid to take control of the U.S. Courthouse at the corner of W. 8th and Lavaca streets. That move vaulted the county to the front of the line.

The U.S. General Services Administration has deemed the 81-year-old building surplus property, allowing government entities and other nonprofits to apply to take over the building without having to purchase it. Per federal law, groups such as Front Steps receive priority consideration.

Kay Klotz, Front Steps’ communications and development director, confirmed to the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that HHS had denied its application, but she declined further comment. An HHS spokesperson told the Monitor that the department does not share specific information about application review decisions.

With Front Steps now out of contention, Travis County can proceed with its own application, which it began preparing this spring with the help of architectural firm Gensler Austin.

Strategic Planning Director Mark Gilbert declined to speculate to the Monitor on how long the review of the county’s application could take.

The county’s ultimate goal is to relocate the probate court into the historic building, thereby providing some small relief to the 85-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse several blocks away.

Earlier this month, Probate Judge Guy Herman told the Commissioners Court that based on current demand and growth forecasts, the county won’t need a second probate judge until the middle of the next decade. If the county ends up securing the relatively small U.S. Courthouse, he told the Monitor, the building’s interior could be redesigned to accommodate two separate courtrooms.

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