Municipal Court May Move Northeast

Move authorization passed without comment at council meeting, but raised dust afterward

Passing almost beneath the public radar at last week's City Council meeting was Item 82: the authorization for staff to enter into negotiations to purchase a Home Depot and the surrounding 14-acre tract at St. John's and I-35, as the future site of a new municipal courthouse and Austin Police Department northeast substation. The authorization passed without comment Thursday, but it raised some dust the next day, at a press conference hastily called by the local representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Mothers Against Discriminatory Racism in Educa­tion and Society, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Organization for Women. "The City Council afforded more of an opportunity for public input on the move of the animal shelter than on the move of the city's municipal courthouse," said LULAC District 7 Director Rita Gonzales-Garza. "The municipal court affects the lives of over 400,000 persons annually, and the council did not bother to hold even a single hearing on the move of the municipal courthouse."

Gonzales-Garza said she and Cynthia Valadez of MADRES had been prepared to speak on the site purchase, but when they arrived at City Hall at the 1pm scheduled time, they were told the item had already been approved. The spokeswomen object to the proposed location as too far from Downtown and too distant from major bus lines for many residents, although they said their primary objections are to the limited public process. Gonzales-Garza said that in the preparations for last year's bond election, the consensus was the new site should be Downtown or on the near Eastside but that the city's real estate staff had apparently determined there are no adequate sites in those locations. "This decision was made without any public input," Gonzales-Garza said. Debbie Russell of the ACLU and Diana Castañeda of NOW added similar complaints about the site-selection process.

"We reviewed 76 sites," city real estate manager Lauraine Rizer responded early this week. "This was number 77." In order to meet the parameters of the bond appropriations – $16 million for the courthouse, $7 million for the APD substation – Rizer said, staff needed to find a site with a finished, high-ceiling building on a major corridor that could be redesigned for the city's purposes, with 450 parking spaces, and within 10 minutes of Downtown by car. Building a new building would cost $300 to $350 per square foot, Rizer said – the Home Depot site (building and land) is estimated at $65 per square foot.

Rizer also said the current negotiation does not mean the deal is done. "We've made Home Depot an offer and are waiting on their response. If they accept our offer, there are still 60 days for appraisal, environmental site assessment, and so on – and the city can walk away for any reason."

In the current market, Rizer said, the city has repeatedly made offers on various properties, only to have a private buyer swoop in and offer a higher price. Did she expect that to happen on this deal? "We don't know – we certainly hope not."

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