After more than a decade of planning and setbacks that included a failed bond referendum, Travis County has settled on a site and a developer for its new civil and family courthouse.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced Tuesday that the county had entered exclusive negotiations with Hunt Development Group to build a courthouse at 1700 Guadalupe St., a 1.46-acre site. Negotiations are expected to last about nine months, and the building is projected to open in 2023.
“I’m just thrilled by this, and in a completely selfish act, my hope is that we will be cutting the ribbon to this building by the end of my next term,” Eckhardt said. “It’s going to be a busy 4½ years. … I can’t thank our internal staff enough.”
The site includes three-quarters of the block stretching from the northwest corner of West 17th and Guadalupe streets. The new court building would replace two surface parking lots and the demolished Travis House building. Some Austinites might remember the site as the former home of the Dog and Duck Pub.
Officials have long been working to replace the aging and overcrowded Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, which was built in 1931. The building was designed to house just four courtrooms; today, it has been reconfigured to house 19.
The county hit a roadblock in 2015 when voters rejected a $287 million bond package to build a new courthouse at 308 Guadalupe St., sending officials back to the drawing board. The county struck a deal with a private developer in July 2017 for a 99-year, $430 million lease of the property at 308 Guadalupe.
In 2016, the county put together a community advisory committee to explore land options, and the committee came up with a recommendation the next year.
This past February, however, county staffers decided to take a different tack. Rather than seeking out land, then a developer, the county opted to instead look for a landowner-developer team.
Mark Gilbert, the county’s managing director of economic and strategic planning, said the shift in strategy occurred because the committee’s top contender ended up being such a team, causing staff to realize there was a need for a competitive process to see if other such teams were interested in the project.
The county issued a request for proposals for a landowner-developer team in February and in June selected its front-runner.
The new courthouse will house all the county’s civil courts except probate courts, which will relocate to the old U.S. courthouse at 200 W. Eighth Street, a surplus property that the federal government gave the county in December 2016. After renovations are completed, that building is expected to open in 2021.
The cost of the new courthouse project, which will be paid for with county funds rather than voter-approved bonds, is still being determined, officials said Tuesday. They added they are aiming to limit the tax impact to about what it would have been if the failed bond referendum had passed — even after accounting for rising construction costs.
At the time, officials said the bond would have cost the average homeowner about $39 per year in added property taxes.
The county staff has refined the courthouse proposal since the failed bond project. At a proposed 430,000 gross square feet, the new building will create space for court growth through 2035 and will house 25 courtrooms.
The project will be co-developed with Chameleon Companies, and companies including Hensel Phelps, Gensler and CGL Companies will handle project design and construction. Team members have worked together on several similar courthouse projects, such as the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in Denver and the U.S. Courthouse in Honolulu.
“We are all really excited that this important and long-overdue project is moving forward,” Gilbert said.