On March 24, Austin City Council will, once again, consider approving actions to permanently move the Downtown Austin Community Court to the former City Municipal Building at 124 West Eighth Street. Key downtown stakeholders, residents, property owners, and business operators oppose the proposed actions, which were postponed by city council on Dec. 2, Jan. 27 and Feb. 17.
The property is in the heart of downtown at the northeast corner of Eighth and Colorado Streets. It was the location of the first Austin-based Texas State Capitol until 1856 when the State gave the property to the city to use as a city hall and market house. The site, which was home to Austin City Hall until 2004, saw multiple renovations between 1858 and 1938, leading to the Art Moderne style building seen today. Since Austin’s new city hall opened in 2004, the building has housed the city’s controller and purchasing offices.
In May 2020, Austin City Council unanimously approved a resolution directing the city manager to come back to council with recommendations on how this specific site could be repurposed to house arts, cultural and creative uses. The resolution cited these uses as being “essential keys to the city’s unique identity” and “vital contributors to our community’s character, quality of life and economy.” Increased arts and cultural uses were also explicitly called for in the city-adopted 2010 Downtown Plan for the Downtown Core/Waterfront District, within which the building is situated.
Now, Austin City Council is considering approving $27 million to renovate approximately half the building to permanently house the Community Court without considering the recommendations they specifically directed the city manager to provide in its May 2020 resolution. City Council’s proposed actions have drawn opposition from many stakeholders in the downtown community, including the Downtown Austin Alliance and a growing number of hotels, businesses, property owners, residents, and community organizations — all of which support the idea of using the facility for arts and culture.
Community Court was created in 1999 as a problem-solving alternative to municipal court, focused on addressing the needs of habitual Class-C misdemeanor defendants downtown through alternative sentencing and treatment. The court describes its clients as “highly vulnerable, highly acute individuals, many of whom are experiencing homelessness, with tri-occurring disorders including mental health and substance use disorders, physical and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries and extensive criminal histories.”
The Court’s jurisdiction, which originally mirrored Austin’s Central Business District, evolved over time from exclusively serving the downtown area to trying defendants throughout the city for certain cases. In the early 2000s, the West Campus area and a significant portion of East Austin were added to the jurisdiction. In 2021, after Austin voters passed Proposition B reinstating the city’s camping, aggressive solicitation and sit-lie ordinances, Community Court began hearing cases for these offenses from across the entire city.
For most of its first 20 years, Community Court was located at 719 East Sixth Street. That location was somewhat central within the court’s original jurisdiction, but it was near where most Class-C offenses occurred within that jurisdiction. In 2020, after 719 East Sixth was sold, the court moved temporarily to the Terrazas Public Library at 1105 East Cesar Chavez Street. In August 2021, Community Court moved to its current, temporary location in the City’s One Texas Center building at 505 Barton Springs Road.
Those who oppose permanently locating the court at Eighth and Colorado Streets cite that the location is neither appropriate to address the complex and profound needs of the court’s target population nor proximal to treatment and service providers that serve the court’s clients. Many are asking why Austin City Council is considering this with such urgency and doing so before any consideration has been given to arts and cultural uses, which were unanimously supported in the May 2020 resolution. Opponents are also questioning whether this is the highest and best use of the proposed $27 million taxpayer-funded price tag to redevelop the facility for this purpose.
Even though the city has acknowledged that One Texas Center, the Court’s current temporary home, will likely be redeveloped as part of the South Central Waterfront Redevelopment Plan, no specific timeline has been set to redevelop that site, supporting the opponents’ argument that there is a false sense of urgency. Opponents are asking Austin City Council to:
- Vote against locating Community Court at this site
- Direct the City Manager to deliver his recommendations for possible future cultural uses
- Conduct a thorough process to determine how Community Court can best serve the needs of the community and its citywide client base before considering the court’s location
While the Council’s decision on the future use of the historic former municipal building remains uncertain, two things are clear: First, the decision that Austin City Council makes will have a long-lasting impact on downtown’s vibrancy and continued growth as an economic and cultural center. Second, history will be the judge as to whether the long-term impact of City Council’s decision is positive or negative for downtown and the city as a whole.
Bill Brice is the Vice President of Investor Relations with the Downtown Austin Alliance. He has served the organization and its membership for nearly two decades, where he has played an integral role in key planning, policy, advocacy and programmatic initiatives related to the issues of homelessness and public safety. He has submitted this opinion piece for publication on TOWERS.net, and the views herein represent the position of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which we present here in the public interest.