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South station closure marks start of municipal court facilities shuffle

Thursday, February 28, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

A significant shuffling of operations is in store for Austin Municipal Court in the coming months, thanks in large part to Friday’s permanent closure of the court’s south substation on Manchaca Road.

The closure will leave South Austin residents with two locations – the main Municipal Court building on East Seventh Street and the north substation on Lamplight Village Avenue – to conduct their legal affairs until the late-December opening of a new Municipal Court facility on Burleson Road in Southeast Austin. That opening is part of a long-term strategy to have the court’s operations cleanly divided between North Austin and South Austin, rather than the longtime model of a central court building with two substations that mainly handled administrative services.

The road map and timeline for the various court facilities was laid out at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s judicial committee by Alex Gale, interim officer of the city’s real estate department. Gale shared that the city is looking for a larger lease space to accommodate the growing burden on the north substation – with the hope of adding a judge and prosecutor to handle some judicial matters – but that the search for a building or acquiring a permanent north court facility has been “pushed back” and may not be undertaken in the next year-plus.

That decision caused some concern from Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who also questioned the decision to close the Manchaca substation before the Burleson Road court facility was open.

“I want to be careful that we don’t delay the beginning of a process we know is going to take two or three or four years,” he said. “I have some concerns about the timing of the close of the south substation being so early in relation to the new south location opening, and how did that get so out of sync?”

Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb told the committee that deteriorating conditions at that facility and a month-to-month lease that gave the property owner the option to end the lease with 30 days notice made it necessary for the court to take the matter into its own hands and move operations on its own timeline rather than having to do so suddenly. The Austin American-Statesman reported that the city spent about $63,000 a year to rent that space.

Gale said the lease for the expanded north substation should be handled quickly so those operations have more room to handle increased service demand. Still in question is the future use of the main District Court building downtown, which is nearly 70 years old and has a growing list of safety and quality-of-life concerns.

The commercial real estate search firm CBRE is conducting an analysis of that building and the surrounding real estate market to determine options for the future use of the prime downtown property near Waller Creek. The report is expected to arrive at City Council in April or May.

The real estate department is also in the early stages of a similar analysis of the Downtown Austin Community Court building on East Sixth Street, which also sits on Waller Creek and is slated to be decommissioned and likely converted to commercial use in the near future. Gale said that purchasing a property to use for that court facility is the most likely option, but the demand for property in the downtown core will make availability and the overall cost an issue that “we’ll have to work on.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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