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City finds fault with potential Downtown Community Court locations, sticks with east side alternative

Tuesday, September 22, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

In the continued search for a new home for the Downtown Austin Community Court, the Office of Real Estate Services has encountered serious constraints against moving the court into the first floor of the John H. Faulk Library or the Austin Municipal Building. Without another alternative for a downtown site, the office now plans to go forward with the 10-year lease and redevelopment of a property on East Second Street, outside of the downtown area.

Given the relative high costs of building, purchasing or leasing property in the downtown central business district, Council members on the Public Safety Committee (previously the Judicial Committee) have expressed interest either in renovating the first floor of the Faulk Library or finding space in another downtown city-owned facility for the court.

“It’s the Downtown Austin Community Court and having it in the actual downtown area makes some sense.” Council Member Greg Casar said at the May 11 meeting of the Public Safety Committee.

However, in a memo Friday, Alex Gale, interim officer of Real Estate Services, said the city has discovered multiple issues with the proposed downtown sites, including constraints on space, parking, costs and timelines. In light of those limitations, Gale said the city does not recommend using the Faulk Library or the Austin Municipal Building. Gale said the office will bring Council an item to lease the site on East Second Street by the end of October.

The Downtown Austin Community Court currently operates out of about 4,900 square feet at 719 E. Sixth St. on the eastern edge of downtown, with a month-to-month lease. Michael Coffey, full-time judge at the court, said the small space means case managers have to work in a separate location, resulting in less efficient work. He said the much larger space planned for East Second Street would allow case managers to work out of the court building, boosting productivity.

“The building that they’re talking about on the east side is wonderful for all of the things that we need, except for the location I think is difficult,” Coffey said. “Most of the people that we serve are much closer into the downtown area and are not easily able to move.”

Gale said the new site will be near public transit and will be served by a city shuttle connecting to City Hall, the Municipal Court at Bergstrom Tech Center and the Planning and Development Center at the former Highland Mall.

In February 2018, Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to find a new home for the court. Due in part to the work of the Homeless Outreach Street Team, the resolution proposed the ideal location for the court would be in the downtown area. Per city code, however, the court may be located on East Second Street as far east as Robert T. Martinez Jr. Street.

Besides the issue of location, Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Casar have stressed the need to consider the costs of the new 30,000-square-foot East Second Street facility, which would require new construction of a three-story building with underground parking facilities and an estimated construction period of between 12 and 18 months.

In contrast, especially considering the renovations of the Faulk Library, Casar and Flannigan agreed it may make more financial sense to move the court into the building’s first floor. Despite the Austin History Center’s proposal to use the first floor of the Faulk for staging historical artifacts, Coffey and Casar agreed in May that it would be worth the effort to further explore use of the Faulk Library.

“If we can solve this staging issue through additional resources, that might still be much less money than essentially having to build a building entirely from scratch, lease it and then long-term look at building another building, or leasing another building, or deciding to stay there,” Casar said. “And if we’re just building this new building and deciding we’re going to stay there, then we should discuss this as the permanent home for the (Downtown Austin Community Court), not as a short- or middle-term thing.”

Gale said the effort to reconsider the Faulk Library could disrupt the city’s negotiations for a lease at the East Second Street site and may even require the office to entirely restart the relocation process. Nonetheless, the office carried out a study of both the Faulk and the Municipal Building at West Eighth Street in collaboration with the Public Works Department.

The analysis found that the Municipal Building has more than enough available square feet but not nearly enough parking spaces, while the Faulk is deficient both in parking and usable square footage. Due to the condition of the Municipal Building, the city estimates necessary renovations would total $20.5 million to move the court into the space while moving into the Faulk Library would cost about $9.5 million.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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