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Commissioners Court approves 20-year vision for juvenile justice complex

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday on a plan that could expand the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center at an estimated initial cost of $73.3 million.

The court unanimously approved the Juvenile Probation Master Plan, a lengthy document that maps out the future of the county’s so-called South Campus near South Congress Avenue and West Oltorf Street.

The county’s property straddles Long Bow Lane, but the existing center largely occupies only the southern half. The north side is occupied by a parking garage, a lot and a drive-through bank building that hosts several county offices.

The new plan calls for the replacement of the bank building and the parking lot with a new juvenile probation services center, along with nonsecured housing for youths in county custody and an activities center. The existing garage would be expanded in order to discourage parking along Long Bow, which leads to the neighborhood just to the east of Gardner-Betts.

The existing juvenile probation services center is tucked away behind an auto-parts store across South Congress from the juvenile justice complex.

The new plan aims to create a “one campus” feel via function and aesthetics. The new probation center would sit along South Congress with very little setback, but its main entry would be on the other side, facing a circular drive that shares symmetry with the site’s main building across the street.

Travis County Economic & Strategic Planning Director Mark Gilbert told the Austin Monitor that the South Congress side would still feature an entrance, to create an inviting facility as well as to accommodate transit users.

The development of the north side of South Campus would take part as the first phase of the four-phase master plan. Assuming final approval for the project in 2018 and the midpoint of construction in 2021, the plan estimates a total cost of $73.3 million. Soft costs – which include architectural and engineering considerations as well as legal fees – make up the lion’s share of that projection, at $22.8 million, followed by the $22.4 million prediction for the new probation services center.

However, taxpayers could ultimately end up spending much more on the master plan’s execution. Subsequent phases call for improvements to the secure detention facilities – estimated at $5.2 million in 2017 dollars – as well as determining what to do with the juvenile court building itself. The court will have to decide whether to replace the existing building or simply renovate it. Renovation could cost as much as $12.5 million; building a new structure would require $22.4 million.

Furthermore, the construction in the first phase of the new nonsecure residences and activity center would trigger the need for an estimated 78 new full-time employees. According to the plan, those new staff positions would mostly be maintenance, housekeeping and on-site food-service roles for new treatment facilities designed to accommodate 52 kids, as well as the planned 10-bed co-ed cottages on the north side of the campus.

County staff had been working with consultant firm RicciGreene Associates on the master plan document since presenting initial findings to the court in April 2016. The 20-year vision replaces the previous master plan approved in 1997.

Rendering courtesy of Travis County.

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