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County undaunted in North Campus planning

Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

True to the word of staff and elected officials, Travis County is moving ahead with plans for a mixed-use development that unexpectedly came up short in a competition for state funding.

Last Tuesday, April 18, Economic & Strategic Planning Director Mark Gilbert reported to the Commissioners Court that design and permitting plans are on schedule and nearing preparation for city review. The project ran into trouble in March when the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs awarded valuable 9-percent tax credits to another project.

That surprise decision was influenced by a rare letter of support for the other project from East Austin State Rep. Dawnna Dukes. It also created a nearly $8 million gap between the county and its plans for the housing and office development at its so-called North Campus at 53 ½ Street and Airport Boulevard.

The proposed project would bring a new headquarters for the county’s Health and Human Services Department as well as 147 affordable housing units to what is currently a large parking lot. Assistant Corporations Manager Karen Thigpen, whose purview includes the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation, explained on Tuesday that the team is now looking at securing 4-percent tax credit financing as well as $3 million in bond funding from the city of Austin.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty questioned whether the plan can realistically move forward, given the unexpected financial gap.

Thigpen reassured him that more often than not, projects don’t win the competitive process to secure 9-percent tax credits. She added that she has full confidence in the county’s private partner, Southwest Strategies Group, Inc.

“One of the reasons we selected them is because they are so experienced, and so this gap is not intimidating to them,” said Thigpen. “It’s not unusual on a project like this and we are pursuing every avenue to fill it.”

A still-jittery Daugherty asked what the worst-case scenario would be to the county if the project collapsed. Thigpen answered, “The liability to the county right now is that you would still have a three-acre parking lot.”

Project rendering courtesy of Travis County.

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