New Courthouse for Travis County?

Commissioners to discuss possible downtown land purchase

The Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse
The Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse (by courtesy of Travis County)

Travis County Commissioners will reportedly discuss in executive session tomorrow (Tuesday) whether to purchase a plot of Downtown Austin land for the development of a new civil courthouse.

The location of the land is officially still under wraps – Comissioner Sarah Eckhardt said the seller wants to keep the deal quiet until "the money goes hard" – as is the price tag, although strong local buzz identifies it as the Austin Museum of Art tract at Fourth and Guadalupe, currently a parking lot next to Republic Square Park, best known as the location of a weekend farmers’ market. According to the county's tax roll, the property is valued at roughly $13.9 million. Eckhardt would not comment on whether that is the property is under consideration, but said that the specifics of any purchase will likely be made public before the end of the month. (Open Meetings laws allow an exemption for private discussion of certain real estate deals.)

Courthouse regulars – including many of the judges – and county officials have long known that the current civil courthouse, the historic 1931 Heman Marion Sweatt building that once housed all branches of county government, has been at overcapacity; currently, said Eckhardt, it is 40% over its original capacity. For the civil courts alone (not counting probate court or the clerks offices), the building has just under 50,000 square feet; by 2035, the county estimates that the civil courts alone will need just more than 188,000 square feet. In short, the county needs the space, Eckhardt said.

Moreover, she notes that a new courthouse could accommodate other offices and spaces that the current courthouse doesn't have room for. For example, she said that a new building would be able to incorporate the county's dispute resolution center – meaning the county's mediation services could actually be housed along with the courts with which it works; a new facility would also be able to incorporate "dedicated square footage" for "some level of child care" for families involved in Child Protective Services and/or divorce cases. As it is now, she said, the "warring parties" all must sit in the courthouse hallways on benches – not an ideal situation.

The plan to build a new courthouse facility is part of the county's multi-phase Central Campus Master Plan in Austin's central business district. Eckhardt says the construction of the new courthouse would fall within the first phase of the project, meaning construction would be complete within the next 10 years.

Eckhardt said the purchase of the land, wherever it may be, will be accomplished by issuing certificates of obligation, which allows the county to move quickly to seal the deal. The construction of the courthouse and other facilities will have to be accomplished via a "long-term bond program" so that the "full [financial] burden" of the projects doesn't "sit on the back of only current county residents," since the full scope of the project is designed also to benefit future county residents. The county is moving now on securing the real estate, however, because of lower interest rates available in the softer economic climate and "before every available block" in downtown Austin "is spoken for," she said.

Meanwhile, the county will also restore the Heman Sweatt courthouse – including the original jail facility on the top floors (commonly referred to as "Alcatravis"); that space would be used as the county's history center, housing documents for public inspection.

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Travis County, Courts, Commissioners Court, Sarah Eckhardt, Heman Marion Sweatt, courthouse, Austin Museum of Art

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