Town Lake Heading to Court?

A decision on a new federal courthouse location is still months away, but site-selection officials have added another possibility to the list -- a four-acre tract overlooking Town Lake.

The spot of land lies on the southwestern edge of Downtown, just west of the Seaholm Power Plant. The current landowner, Lumbermen's Investment Corp., lost a zoning bid two years ago to build a 180-foot-high, 500,000-square-foot luxury condo on the site. The land has been in a holding pattern ever since, but it recently caught the eye of Leonard Murphy, director of property development for the regional office of the U.S. General Services Administration, who's overseeing the project to replace the current U.S. courthouse on Eighth Street.

Murphy said he approached Lumbermen's about the possibility of selling the land, adding that the size of the property would allow the courthouse to have 50-foot security setbacks on all sides. "The way it overlooks the lake -- I think an architect would be able to do something with the courthouse," he said. The GSA has already named Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam to design the Austin courthouse, wherever it may be. Lumbermen's attorney, Jay Hailey, could not be reached for comment.

Environmental advocate Mary Arnold, who led opposition to the Lumbermen's proposed condo, says the GSA's plans for a 200,000-square-foot courthouse with minimal parking would be better suited for the site. "It sounds like a more reasonable development scenario in terms of impact on parkland," she said.

Meanwhile, the Intel site is still high on the GSA's list, and Murphy said negotiations continue. One sticking point is the skeleton of the Intel building, which the GSA doesn't intend to keep but which Intel wants to include in the sale price. "It means something to them," Murphy says, "but it means something else to us." Some observers of the process wonder if the GSA is playing the Lumbermen's card to leverage its bargaining potential with Intel.

Downtown and city leaders believe the GSA has turned its attention -- at least for now -- away from sites with existing businesses or blueprints for future establishments, such as the planned Whole Foods expansion at Fifth and Lamar. But the Downtown crowd's first preference is the Intel site. "We're encouraged that negotiations are continuing with Intel," said Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance. "We think this would be an excellent site." The DAA has also suggested another choice site -- the 400 block of East Seventh, currently a surface parking lot. Betts said the street is destined for major improvements and a new courthouse would offer a significant jump-start toward that end.

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