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Council tells staff: Get municipal court move done

Friday, September 6, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

So far, the process of reviewing plans and preparing for relocation of the Austin Municipal Court has been “very, very extensive,” according to Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb. Impatient with the lagging timeline, City Council is pressing staffers to wrap up the move as soon as possible.

In preparing to move the court from its current spot at 700 E. Seventh St., where it’s been for over 65 years, Grubb told the Judicial Committee Sept. 3 that staff had to revisit the roughly 200-page building plan five times with various stakeholders. That, she said, is why the original move-in date was moved from December of this year to April 2020.

While Grubb said city staffers are simply doing their due diligence on a critical project, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan insisted that the project’s complexity could have been taken into account from the start.

“Knowing that this is complicated, I would have assumed you factored that into the timeline,” he said. “We don’t have to belabor it: please, let’s hit April 2020. Let’s not have this conversation one more time if we can avoid it.”

Council’s long-term objective is to have two municipal court facilities, one serving North Austin and another in South Austin. According to Council’s resolution from February 2018, the idea is, at least in part, to reduce commute times and transportation costs for the city while moving the courts closer to more residents.

However, with the 96,000-square-foot South Austin facility nearing completion, Alex Gale, interim officer with the Office of Real Estate Services, said the city has temporarily hit pause on the search for a North Austin facility for about five to seven years. In the meantime, Gale said, the city’s 10-year lease on the 6800 Burleson Road facility will suffice.

Council is also jumping on the relocation opportunity to include a child care center directly across the street from the new court site on Burleson Road. Staffers propose to retrofit a 7,500-square-foot space inside the building with adequate rooms and plumbing to serve a variety of functions, including a child care center.

In support of what she said could be a first for the city, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza brought the proposal up for discussion at Wednesday’s budget meeting. If staff members are ready, Garza said, it may make better sense to allocate funding for the project before Council adopts the budget on Sept. 10.

However, if Council were to allocate those funds for Oct. 1, Gale said, which would total an estimated $463,000, staff still wouldn’t be ready to use them until the design is complete. In the “best-case scenario,” he said, staff could be ready to begin work on the facility on Jan. 1, bringing the Fiscal Year 2020 cost estimate down to $403,976, which includes a one-time build-out fee of about $225,000.

Council Member Kathie Tovo joined the discussion Wednesday, referencing unspecified examples of municipal court child care drop-in centers that serve not only court employees but those using the court system and potentially even the general public. “Having been at (municipal court) a couple of times and seeing lots of very bored kids and bringing my own bored kids to places like that, I think a drop-in center would really be important.”

Gale said the child care center details have not been entirely finalized but that Council should hear more in the coming months. Here, again, Flannigan pressed staff: “I think it’s fair to say that Council expects that to get done, so please get that done.”

As the city moves the municipal court south and finds a new home for the Downtown Austin Community Court, Gale said staff foresees a potential lease, sale or redevelopment of the existing court facility. While the site is centrally located along the Waterloo Greenway, an analysis in 2012 found the building lacking $7.2 million in deferred maintenance needs.

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