Travis County looks for new way forward to build new family, civil courthouse

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A plan to build a new civil and family court complex in Travis County is taking a step forward Tuesday, more than two years after voters rejected a $287 million bond measure to fund its construction.

County commissioners instead wrote money for the project into their budget last year, and Tuesday they’ll hear comments from construction and real estate industry professionals about how best to structure a deal to build on private land moving forward. It’s a response, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said, to their first attempt, in which county officials bought a plot of land at 308 Guadalupe Street, then tried to get money approved to finance construction.

“This exercise has very much been about going back to that same real estate market and saying, ‘Help us respond to this community need,'” Eckhardt said.

The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse at 10th and Guadalupe Streets, which currently serves family and civil court matters, has been around since the 1930s and is not suited to current needs, she said. It was overcrowded when the county performed a needs assessment between 2009-2010, and it’s only gotten worse in the years since.

It’s not uncommon, judges and attorneys said, to see victims of abuse waiting outside a courtroom on the same bench as their alleged abusers, or to find parents fighting over custody sharing a waiting area with their child.

“It’s difficult to function,” Eckhardt said. By some time next year she expects the overcrowding to ease a bit when probate court affairs move to an old federal courthouse the county acquired at the end of 2016. But that doesn’t change the fact, she said, that they need more space for clients to meet with attorneys and for judges to preside over trials.

The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse at 10th and Guadalupe Streets, which currently serves family and civil court matters (KXAN Photo)

This new courthouse plan shouldn’t cost any more than the one voters rejected in 2015, Eckhardt said, combined with the price tag of the land the county bought to build on back in 2010. That $21 million lot is now being leased out to a private developer for $430 million over 99 years.

This time around, commissioners want to find a private landowner and build on that property instead of buying a plot outright. The comments they’ve gathered over recent weeks and will present Tuesday will provide guidance, Eckhardt said.

“People are justifiably concerned that if we do a partnership with a private landowner that it will be to the landowner’s advantage and to the taxpayers’ disadvantage,” she said. “So we are kicking the tires hard on how to structure such a deal.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners and planners will draft a public request for proposals to attract private landowners who want to put their property in the mix for the courthouse development. Eckhardt expects that to happen next month, and hopes to open the new courthouse by 2023.

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