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Travis County moves to sell proposed courthouse site, find new options

Travis County is moving on from voter rejection of a pricey new civil courthouse and looking to other options.

County leaders Tuesday voted to move forward on leasing or selling the site formerly proposed for a new courthouse at 300 Guadalupe St. They also voted to consider easing crowding of the existing courthouse with an 80-year-old option they’ll try to get for free.

Voters last year nixed the county’s request for a $287 million bond package for a new civil courthouse planned on the Guadalupe site, which would have cost taxpayers $13.50 per year for every $100,000 of taxable value. Some real estate and business groups opposed the project on the grounds that the property was too prime a location and should be used for restaurants or condos.

After discussing the property during a closed executive session Tuesday, the Commissioners Court left all options open for what the site could be used for. The board voted 3-0, with Commissioners Margaret Gómez and Ron Davis abstaining, to request proposals from developers who would like to purchase or lease the site.

Gómez said she wanted to be sure a courthouse Community Advisory Committee would be able to weigh in on any proposals received.

“We wouldn’t be discussing this lot if it wasn’t for the fact that this was the spot designated for the new courthouse,” she said after the meeting.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt countered that it would depend on the proposals. The committee shouldn’t have access to real estate information unrelated to a new courthouse, she said.

The county’s purchasing department will work with consultants AECOM to draft the request language and bring it back to commissioners to approve before it is open for proposals. That will probably take at least a month, purchasing agent Cyd Grimes.

Meanwhile, the county will move forward on trying to acquire the old federal courthouse at 200 W. Eighth St., which the General Services Administration is expected to release as surplus property, staff told commissioners Tuesday. The federal courthouse opened in 1936 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a historic surplus property, it could be given to a local governmental entity at no cost.

That doesn’t mean it’s a free alternative to a new courthouse. It would likely be a sizable investment to renovate the old building, and the county would have to preserve its historic elements. And there could be competition. Belinda Powell, that county strategic planning manager, said the General Services Administration has told her other parties are interested in the site, possibly for homeless housing, but she doesn’t know which ones.

Still, commissioners called it a good opportunity.

“We could get downtown property for free,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “We’d have to update it, but still.”

Commissioners gave staffers permission to work on an application for obtaining the property with Gensler, a consulting firm that prepared a 2014 report on the building. Powell said there’s no analysis yet of what renovation is needed or what it would cost, because she hasn’t yet had access to the floor plan.

Portions of the 60,000-square-foot building, including its four courtrooms, likely would be protected and couldn’t be altered, Powell said. It’s unclear how much the building could offset the county’s courthouse crowding as leaders continue to explore other options.

Last week, the Community Advisory Committee heard information about possible building sites across Guadalupe Street from the current courthouse and catty-corner to the northeast. But building on either site would be limited, as both sites fall within Capitol View Corridors, sightlines of the Capitol that are protected by state law.

Deece Eckstein, the county’s intergovernmental relations officer, told the committee that the odds of overturning the view corridor requirements are slim. The committee didn’t decide on a recommendation regarding either site.

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