Austin real estate group opposes $287 million courthouse bonds

The debate over Travis County’s $287 million bond election for a new downtown civil courthouse is starting to look like a battle of lawyers versus developers.

The Real Estate Council of Austin on Thursday announced that it is opposing the bond package, which is being backed primarily by the Austin Bar Association. The real estate group passed a resolution Wednesday laying out its problems with the project, saying it doesn’t question that the county needs a new courthouse but opposes the proposed location, on the parking lot at Fourth and Guadalupe streets.

“That is a prime piece of real estate. It’s sort of the gateway to Seaholm from middle downtown,” said Ward Tisdale, the group’s president. “The vibrancy of that block would be significantly higher if there were a mixed use, whether it’s residential with restaurants or who knows.”

Developers and real estate professionals have quietly criticized the courthouse project for months, but there was little public opposition to it until Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman and the Travis County Taxpayers Union in recent weeks launched a campaign to defeat the bond item on the Nov. 3 ballot. They want the project moved to East Austin, where they say construction will be cheaper and the courthouse more accessible. The real estate group’s resolution echoed those concerns.

Tisdale said the real estate group doesn’t plan to organize or fund a campaign to defeat the bonds, but it felt a responsibility to take a stance on the issue. He said the resolution was approved “overwhelmingly” by the group’s executive committee and board of directors but declined to disclose the vote tally.

He added that allowing private development on the block, which is especially valuable because it isn’t restricted by Capitol View Corridors rules, would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in local tax revenue in the coming decades.

Genevieve Van Cleve, campaign manager for the Austin Bar Association-backed political action committee supporting the bonds, said she is “not surprised” that the real estate council is against the bond measure.

“There’s no profit margin in ordinary Americans having access to justice. There’s no money to be made ensuring that people in wheelchairs can get in and out of the building with dignity,” she said. “Not every decision we make, as a community, can or should be based on a few rich people getting richer. Downtown doesn’t exist just to entertain people of means.”

She noted that the bond election is supported by SafePlace and the Central Labor Council.

The campaign has maintained that construction costs would be similar in the city’s core as they would be on its outskirts because of the high cost of materials and labor in the Austin market. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has said keeping the courthouse downtown will save money on the county’s operational costs by keeping the justice complex centralized. The Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, which houses the county’s civil courts now and will be renovated into county offices if the bonds are approved, is at 11th and Guadalupe.

The new courthouse will only take up the northern half of its block, which is immediately south of Republic Square. The county plans to allow a private developer to erect a mixed-use tower on the block’s southern half and operate it under a long-term lease. That building would be taxable, although the ground beneath it would not.

DeLaine Ward, executive director of the Austin Bar Association, questioned why developers are interested in putting the block in private hands.

“Do they suppose that the county’s property should be used to construct more high-priced condos that the average homeowner can’t afford to buy?” she said in an email. “The commercial developers had a chance to buy the lot five years ago. Instead, the county bought it, and now it’s not for sale. The Civil and Family Courts Complex will generate job growth in downtown Austin.”

Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting has begun.

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