News briefs from Austin, the region, and beyond
Civil Courthouse Finds New Home
Travis County commissioners voted Tuesday to buy a plot of Downtown land for development of a new civil courthouse. Owned by the Austin Museum of Art, the tract, at Fourth and Guadalupe, just south of Republic Square Park, is currently just a parking lot – but it comes with a $21 million price tag, according to county officials. The historic 1931 Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse building, which once housed all branches of county government, has long been over capacity, and by 2035, the county estimates that the civil courts alone will need more than 188,000 square feet – much more than the 50,000 square feet they occupy now. A new building would incorporate other uses as well, including a dispute resolution center and child care for families involved in Child Protective Services and/or divorce cases. (Currently, said Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, "warring parties" must sit in the hallways on benches – not an ideal situation.) The facility – to be completed within the next decade – will be part of the county's multiphase Central Campus Master Plan in Austin's central business district. Now is the right time to buy, said Eckhardt, while interest rates are low and "before every available [Downtown] block is spoken for." The county also plans to 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. – Jordan Smith
Formula One Ponies up
The first Austin Grand Prix won't take place until 2012, but the construction crew could be starting its engines soon. On Dec. 14, Formula One United States confirmed that Austin Commercial will serve as the general contractor for the project. The firm, which has done several local projects including the new W Hotel on Second Street, joins German track designers Tilke GmbH and Dallas-based architects HKS Inc. That same day, the project passed a major permitting process hurdle, as Travis County commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a flood plain variance (Margaret Gómez was the sole nay). Since floodplain maps for the area are still under review, the variance depends on the developers receiving a Conditional Letter of Map Revision from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While that letter is pending and the project waits for a separate flood plain permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, the developers will file a $921,000 surety with the county. If FEMA issues the CLOMR within six months, the developers get the money back; if not, then the bond will be used to return the area to its original condition. Project attorney Richard Suttle said he's confident they'll be getting the money back, as "CLOMRs are the kind of thing where it's not if it's issued, but when." The sticking point now is transportation. County staff want the developers to contribute up to $6 million to upgrade the main access route down Elroy Road and the bridge crossing Dry Creek. Suttle told the commissioners they would be happy to enter into discussions but raised the possibility of a public financing district to cover the costs. – Richard Whittaker
Death sentences in Texas courts dropped to a new low in 2010, with just eight sentences handed down, according to the annual "Texas Death Penalty Developments" report put together by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Death sentences have dropped more than 70% since 2003, according to the report, and since 2007, only 21 of the state's 254 counties have imposed them. Of the 43 sentences imposed between 2007 and 2010, Dallas County leads the pack with seven, followed by Harris County with six. To read the entire report, see "Down on Death" at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk. – J.S.