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Council appears ready to hit pause on downtown court relocation

Thursday, January 27, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council appears set to delay a decision on relocating the Downtown Austin Community Court to the former City Hall building on West Eighth Street.

At Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Kathie Tovo said she planned to ask Council to delay action on three items related to the relocation for at least a week, with Mayor Steve Adler saying there would be discussion about possibly waiting longer than a week.

Two of the agenda items in question would have amended the capital budget for the Building Services Department by appropriating $27 million to pay for the renovations to the building that currently holds the Financial Services Department, while allowing the city to reimburse the cost from future certificates of obligation. Another item would have committed the city to use the design-build contracting process to select vendors for the renovation project.

Tovo’s move to delay the decision came in part because of criticism from downtown stakeholders, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, which issued a press release Monday calling for the DACC relocation action to be delayed until early March because of concerns there hadn’t been enough public input on the site selection.

The former City Hall building was chosen as the best option for the court after city staff evaluated 22 sites based on criteria such as the budget for renovations or leases, location near the court’s downtown jurisdiction, accessibility to the homeless population the court serves, and proximity to transit options.

The court had long operated out of space on East Sixth Street, but was forced to relocate temporarily to 9,000 square feet of space in One Texas Center after the property owner of the Sixth Street space chose not to renew the lease. In late 2020, staff recommended moving the court to a location on East Second Street, but that choice drew heavy community criticism.

The Eighth Street location was originally ruled out because of parking and accessibility concerns, but in an online forum held Tuesday, deputy CFO Kimberly Olivares said those issues had been addressed. Olivares said the site could be renovated and reopened in two years or less with the court occupying 22,000 square feet on the first two floors, and the remaining space expected to be used for creative and nonprofit groups.

Avoiding leasing issues with privately owned space, extending the life of a city-owned real estate asset and the option for creative space use were three additional benefits of the relocation recommendation.

“When we landed on the municipal building as our recommendation we determined that not only is there the opportunity to relocate the DACC to that space, but that building is in great need of renovation, regardless of who is occupying it,” Olivares said. “In this situation there were three things we were able to achieve. The price tag, while it may seem significant, when it comes to acquiring the land and building a new building or renovating an existing building, it is far more cost-effective on a cost-per-square-foot calculation.”

Questions asked during the forum centered on the criteria used to evaluate the other sites, what construction impacts would be felt by nearby residents, and what other sites were considered. Olivares said staff would begin looking for new space for the Financial Services Department once Council approves the relocation agenda items.

Tovo said the city has a growing need to provide case management and other related services to the homeless in other parts of the city as well as downtown.

“One of the things that I’ve talked with our staff and city manager about is giving some direction to set up some satellite locations, and to begin looking for those locations, knowing that wherever in downtown the DACC is located we do also have an increasing number of individuals in other parts of the city who do need those services and attention.”

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