Travis County is proposing a Courthouse to be built facing into Downtown Austin’s most central and celebrated park, Republic Square Park. And, residents and visitors alike should not be thrilled with the current proposal.
Some background, per consultants hired for the project:
Currently Civil and Family Court proceedings for Travis County are occurring at the Heman Mariott Sweatt Courthouse, a building erected in 1931.
This current courthouse is lacking space needed, infrastructure, and general design and layout / circulation for those with dealings in the Court (particularly to ensure safety of those filing claims against their aggressors). More people, more problems, so to speak, and Austin needs adequate court space to properly ensure justice is being done in as timely of a manner as possible.
We get it.
What we don’t get is why Travis County feels the need to use some of the most prime real estate in Austin to build a silo of a structure that in no way relates to the neighborhood it will inhabit – a neighborhood with the SPECIFIC goal of being pedestrian-friendly and engaging. The current site selection sits just south of Republic Square Park.
Apparently, there will be two phases of construction. The first phase will be the actual Courthouse (the structure that will face into the park), and the second phase will have some other use, like County offices (with some space potentially being leased to private entities, etc). In the interim, the County hopes to make the unused portion of the lot “green space.”
We can think of a few reasons NOT to build the Travis County Courthouse in this location. Here are a couple:
- There are better locations for the site. The population center of Austin is north of the University of Texas, near Burnet and North Loop. One proposed alternative by those in the know is the Travis County owned site at 290 at I35 next to the Highland Mall ACC Campus location.
- After 5pm, this proposed 14 story box becomes an urban void. A full city block – one of the best in the entire city – sitting idle for 12+ hours a day.
- There are much better and higher uses for the current site sitting just south of Republic Square park. Pretty much any use that can remain open, active, and engaging after 5pm is better.
There is only one real reason we’ve heard to place the Courthouse at 4th & Guadalupe: to reduce the need to transport those in custody to another location (we have requested exact numbers on that, but until told otherwise, cannot believe the impact would be THAT significant).
Location qualms aside, the $300 million 14-story beige box proposed ignores the opportunity cost of placing a silo in the middle of downtown.
Apparently, retail was considered for part of the ground floor, but then somehow decided against, because of “security concerns” and lack of compelling evidence that retail was a sustainable use for the space.
OK, let’s say that the security concerns were real and retail was not a sustainable use for ground floor space in the Courthouse – so put the building elsewhere that street level retail use hasn’t been planned for years!
The security concerns described (simply ensuring no dangerous objects or material are able to enter the Courthouse through the retail space by shipping or customers coming from the exterior) seems easy to overcome. With the new Hotel Zaza and thousands of dwelling nearby, notably Plaza Lofts, W Hotel, 360 Condos, AMLI on 2nd, Gables, and more, it only improves the chances that a retail use will be highly successful in that location. Currently, the County intends to use a portion of the ground floor as “event space.” Huh?!
I’m ready to be convinced otherwise, but on its face, the concept that retail couldn’t survive in this location is bunk. It might not fit the mold of a courthouse, and that’s why this location has higher and better uses than a courthouse.
We don’t have renderings yet, but a massing was provided, with some general info on the structure:
Bottom line is the new Travis County Courthouse as proposed ignores more than two decades of effort by myriad people working to improve the experience of living, working, visiting, shopping, dining, and generally desiring to be in downtown Austin.
Luckily, this particular project can’t be funded without passing the bond election in November. Unless the location is changed, or the proposal for the current site is drastically altered to integrate into the fabric of the City, we’re voting “NO” in November.