The Austin Chronicle

Commissioners Review Downtown Vision

By Patricia J. Ruland, January 18, 2008, News

A redeveloped Travis County Downtown campus should be more than just another pretty facade if current planners have their way. A new civil courthouse is badly needed; from that has grown a passion to embark on a multimillion-dollar, multistructure, multiyear capital-improvement project, which the Commissioners Court formally kicked off Dec. 11. According to County Auditor Susan Spataro, the prevailing wish is to build a legacy. "The present courthouse was built 70 years ago, and we still appreciate it; we want people 70 years from now to say, 'Look what they gave us,'" Spataro told the Chronicle.

On Jan. 8, Spataro read a draft of an impassioned solicitation letter, which when finalized will be sent to various community groups seeking nominees for the citizens advisory committee, which will assist executive and staff committees, also to be named soon. The project will be born of dire necessity, Spataro read, "in order to avoid a crisis in [the county's] ability to deliver services to a rapidly growing population."

According to a Jan. 10 status report, the perimeter of the project will include Ninth, 13th, Nueces, and Lavaca streets, a 10-block area. Nesting a county campus in a dense Downtown won't be easy, Spataro said. Essentially, new buildings should resonate well with nearby parks, schools, and the Capit­ol. Moreover, the favored site for a new civil courthouse, next door to the current one, is located in the Capitol View Corridor. The county probably won't seek an exemption, Spataro said, necessitating a search for another site. "We are at the foot of the Capit­ol – buildings must fit into the historical context," Spataro said. "The design itself should instill respect for the rule of law – I am proud to walk through the corridors of the Capitol; I want residents to be proud to walk through the corridors of the new complex."

Such populist profundity will come at a cost, however. Travis County has always been "very, very frugal," and the complex will take "more than the minimum," Spataro said. Will voters decide they need, not just want, new county digs? "If you can't sell the need, you don't sell the hundred-million-dollars-plus [that the project will cost]," Spataro cautioned the court, thus providing the first mention of a dollar figure to date.

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