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Council halts move of downtown court, seeking study of future needs

Tuesday, March 29, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council has changed course on its plans to relocate the Downtown Austin Community Court to a historic municipal building on West Eighth Street, directing city staff to conduct an analysis of the court’s future needs with the possibility of keeping its existing space in One Texas Center.

At last week’s meeting, three items on the agenda would have allocated the $27 million renovation budget for the West Eighth location and set the framework to open bids for design and construction projects. Those items were withdrawn via motions from Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Kathie Tovo, who directed the court, related homeless services partners and the city’s Innovation Office to contribute to the study with that work completed by the end of June.

The court lost its longtime leased space on East Sixth Street due to redevelopment plans by the property owner, forcing the move to One Texas Center, which was intended to be a temporary home.

The plan to move to the former City Hall building on West Eighth drew loud criticism from the Downtown Austin Alliance and nearby residents who worried that the court’s focus on case management services for the homeless would clash with the area’s upscale, historic atmosphere. Some of those against the move also questioned whether the city should spend $27 million to renovate the municipal building, and argued that the Waller Creek Center facility on East 10th Street could provide a suitable home for the court.

Last week, the city released an analysis of the two sites, though it noted that there isn’t a full estimate of costs to outfit Waller Creek Center for the court instead of its current use for Austin Water employees. It also noted: “Location of Community Court operations in the building would require moving current AW staff to another location which would disrupt continuity of operations for the utility.”

Adler said the cost questions and other issues raised in recent weeks need to be addressed before he would vote on any relocation of the court.

“There’s the question of looking at the operations of the DACC and there’s been conversations about moving to a decentralized operation that might have satellite locations and mobile locations. In that regard, I don’t know that the programming for the space that’s needed would be exactly the same,” he said. “I’d really like to have different departments in the city figure out the answer to that question, and to expanding the jurisdiction geographically as well as what we are doing as far as changing the focus on crimes and offenses or the concerns and challenges (for the homeless).”

Council Member Leslie Pool expressed the strongest support for keeping the court in its current location as part of restructuring its purpose and overall goals.

“Anytime we have to relocate, it costs money and effort and there’s kind of a psychological approach to things too, when you have to disrupt your routine and then start all over again,” she said. “There are future plans for the One Texas Center site, and what might we do to consider the community court staying there? I would like to pursue that as part of the portfolio of work.”

City Manager Spencer Cronk suggested Council spend a future work session discussing the issue. Staff from the city’s real estate department said it was unlikely that a full study of the court’s future needs as well as the possibility of it remaining in One Texas Center could be completed in three months.

The discussion of One Texas Center’s future turned eventually to the possibility of turning it into residential use with a large portion of the affordable housing that has been planned for the redevelopment of the surrounding South Central Waterfront District. While Tovo advocated heavily for making affordability a priority, Adler said there are many competing ideas and priorities for how the building could be redeveloped.

Photo by LoneStarMike, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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