Travis County looks at Central Austin property for mixed-use development

4:26 p.m Saturday, April 19, 2014 Politics

A developer is eyeing 3 acres along Airport Boulevard in Central Austin as a site for a new mixed-use project that would fill out a massive parking lot next to some squat office buildings.

Who is the developer? Travis County.

The county bought the sites, which were furniture stores and a gas station between 2003 and 2010, and converted them into a campus of various county offices that serve about 2,000 visitors and 400 employees a day. A 2010 master plan of the so-called North Campus called for further development on the site.

County staffers presented a plan to commissioners last week to build out the site by leasing the land to a private developer. Staffers didn’t get into specifics, saying that would be up to whatever developer the commissioners decide to work with months down the line.

“Is it really just enough to deliver a two-story county office building with a parking lot on this site or can we get more out of this land?” asked Mark Gilbert, a senior planner with the county.

County commissioners would need to approve the plan, which County Judge Sam Biscoe said he plans to set for a discussion and possible vote April 29. From then, the commissioners would seek bids from various firms on how to develop the site. Gilbert said a new building could be built within three years.

The mixed-use project would be built on the southern end of the land, near 53½ Street. It would include about 30,000 square feet of office space for the county, the rest being used at the discretion of a developer as other offices or housing, Gilbert said.

The rest of the 13-acre property currently includes two buildings that house the tax office, the county clerk’s elections division, the sheriff’s office and several other county departments. Those buildings and the departments would remain there for now, with the tax office expanding into a new building.

Under the plan, the county would continue to own the land, making it exempt from property taxes. The developer would own the building, which would be taxable. That adds new property to the county’s tax roll, but the developer is also getting a hefty tax break by not having to pay taxes on the land. The county would pay below-market rent on the space it uses, according to the plan.

“Developing a project with only county office space absolutely underutilizes this site and could be a loss of taxable property value by the county,” said Andrea Shields, the county’s corporations manager.

The Travis County Development Corp., a nonprofit governmental entity headed by the county commissioners, would issue bonds to loan money to a developer to finance the project, according to the plans. The developer’s revenue from rents would pay back the loan.

County staffers have met with neighbors who have said they’d like to see mixed-use development in the area, Shields said.

“In our conversations with the neighbors as well as the city, they would really like to see us harness the development potential of that site,” Gilbert said.

To make the new building mesh better with the single-family homes behind the site to the east, Gilbert said the new building, up to six stories in the front, would be shorter in back.

The plan also comes amid a 5-year-old effort by the city of Austin to revitalize a stretch of Airport Boulevard that includes the county offices, aiming for more pedestrian- and transit-oriented development. That means new buildings would be bound under city codes to have a certain look and feel; for example, by being built closer to the sidewalk, a building would be more walker-friendly.

A planned urban rail line that the city will probably take to voters in November for millions of dollars in bonds will include a stop near the county-owned land, Gilbert said.

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