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Travis County reveals proposed location for new courthouse

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is negotiating with a private development group to build a brand-new civil courthouse at West 17th and Guadalupe streets.

The location was revealed after County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting that she had signed off on entering into exclusive negotiations with Travis County Courthouse Development Partners LLC to acquire the site and build the court facility on top of it.

The development team is led by El Paso-based Hunt Development Group and includes Chameleon Companies, Hensel Phelps, Gensler and CGL Companies.

The plan would deliver a much-needed replacement for the 87-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse at West 11th and Guadalupe streets.

In 2015, voters narrowly rejected a $287 million bond that would have funded a new civil courts complex farther south at 308 Guadalupe.

“The bond failed, but the need continued. And I had as a goal before the end of my first term that we would have a concrete plan for addressing that need,” Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “And now we do.”

That plan deviates from its 2015 predecessor, which followed the more conventional method wherein the county acquires the land and recruits a private partner to design and build the structure. In the new plan, referred to as “build to suit,” the private partner provides both the land and the building services.

The county put out a request for proposal earlier this year and heard back from several interested groups. That competitive process will help reduce the project’s final price tag, according to Eckhardt.

“We were the girl at the dance, rather than the other way around,” she quipped.

The judge explained that the negotiations with the developers will last through March, but she expressed confidence that a deal could be reached.

“The scaffolding of the deal is set and known, and really everything that is happening moving forward is about refining what’s hanging on that scaffolding in terms of deal points,” Eckhardt said.

“We’re engaged,” she added.

Rodney Moss, senior vice president with Hunt Development Group, echoed that optimism.

“We have an agreement to agree right now, but we don’t have a deal. Everything’s in line. We’ve got the financing lined up, lenders committed, and the land locked up,” said Moss. “I’ve got a ring in my pocket.”

In order to maintain leverage during the negotiations, the county is declining to reveal the estimated cost of the project.

Unlike 2015, the county does not plan to fund the project with general obligation bonds that require voter approval.

The total price tag on the 2015 plan was $313 million. That included the $22 million purchase price of the land and the failed bond package. The county had planned to cover the difference through other revenue sources.

Despite concerns after the 2015 election that further delays would only increase costs, county planners combed through the current plan to find new savings. They were able to remove the need for probate courtrooms since those are now planned to move into the old U.S. Courthouse building on West Eighth Street, a site the county acquired from the federal government for free, renovation costs notwithstanding.

Furthermore, plans to provide every judge his or own courtroom with 18-foot-tall ceilings were scaled down. Instead, some judges will share courtrooms with slightly less headroom.

The new project’s price tag will also be offset by the deal the county struck last year to lease 308 Guadalupe to a private developer. That 99-year contract will bring in an estimated $430 million in its lifetime.

As for the new proposed site itself, it includes the majority of the block on the northwest corner of West 17th and Guadalupe. The new court building would replace two surface parking lots and the basement ruins of the demolished Travis House building.

An existing apartment building also sits on the block. The county’s plans envision building around that structure. The county has attempted the contact the owner of the building in order to negotiate access concerns during construction but efforts to reach out have so far failed.

It also sits along 15 bus routes. Ten of those run frequent service, including both MetroRapid lines.

“We mapped it before and after Cap Remap and feel really excited about the transit access to this thing,” Travis County senior planner Mark Gilbert said.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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