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County’s North Campus plans to squeeze out Tax Office workers

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is moving forward with plans to raise a multistory mixed-use project in North Central Austin.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court unanimously endorsed a staff recommendation to cap at three stories the planned office component that would be added to the county’s North Campus property on Airport Boulevard.

The vote also determined which county workers will move into the 60,000-square-foot building – and which ones won’t, including employees of the neighboring Tax Office.

Instead, the entire contingent of Department of Health and Human Services staffers currently at downtown Austin’s Palm School building will relocate to the new office at 5325 and 5335 Airport Blvd. HHS workers from another location at 300 E. Highland Mall Blvd. will be joining them. The move frees up both that property as well as the Palm School for “alternative uses and/or disposition,” according to a county document.

Courtesy of Travis County

Also slated for the new North Campus building is the District Clerk’s Passport office, which is currently housed in the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. Along with other high-traffic HHS services, the passport office will be located on the new building’s first floor. Less intensive uses, including administrative offices and conference rooms, are slated for the second floor.

The high volume of traffic planned for the first floor precludes any expansion of Tax Office services, which sees an average of 800 customers per day, Strategic Planning Director Mark Gilbert told the court.

When pressed by Commissioner Brigid Shea to explain the process behind that decision, Gilbert explained, “We ended up being most comfortable with this because we believed we could provide a suitable amount of parking and access for all of Health and Human Services’ needs at this site and keep all their higher uses, including veteran and family support services, on the first floor.”

Nonetheless, Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant still maintains that his facility at 5505 Airport is, like so many other county buildings, fraught with overcrowding. Ken Gaede of the county’s Facilities Management Department said that one solution under consideration is the construction of a two-story addition to the south end of the Tax Office, thus increasing its total office space from 22,700 square feet to 29,900 square feet.

Elfant told the court that he bore no hard feelings about being shut out of the new office building.

“We’re happy to stay where we are. We’re not unhappy with the space,” he said. “It would be good to have better air conditioning and less leaks in the roof. Hopefully we can work out those things.” Elfant added that he would like to see the Commissioners Court commit to a plan for his space needs sometime this year.

As for the rest of the North Campus project, Gilbert told the Austin Monitor that the number of residential units planned for the back half of the site has dropped by one, to 145, in order to fit in a planned walkway. Each would be affordable for residents who make 60 percent or less of the median family income.

That section of the building will start at three floors on the side of the property that faces Helen Street and rise to a fourth floor in the structure’s center. Gilbert estimated the total height will be around 50 feet, 10 feet below the limit spelled out by city code.

Gilbert said that in addition to robust and positive discussions with the North Field and Ridgetop neighborhood associations, the project meets existing zoning and compatibility standards and will not need any variances, thus helping it avoid the fate of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Plaza Saltillo, which could be built shorter than planned in the wake of stakeholder objections.

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