Courthouse Steps

Yesterday, I attended AURA’s panel on the proposed Travis County Civil and Family Complex.  This project is commonly referred to as the “new Courthouse”.  What follows is my transcription of the panel’s discussion.


Susan Somers, an AURA Board member, started the panel discussion by introducing AURA and its history.

Dan Keshet then introduced the panelists. Keshet explained the format was a panel discussion and not a debate. The panel’s goal is to start getting information out about the proposal.

The panelists:

Rahm McDaniel – Zoning & Platting (ZAP) Commissioner and tech executive.

Roger Cauvin – Downtown resident, Board member of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, leader within Friends of Austin Neighborhoods.

Genevieve Van Cleve – Former Executive Director of Texas Women Vote, Deputy Director at Annie’s List, all-star Texas political pro

Judge Eric Shepperd – County Court Judge at Law – 2

Genevieve Van Cleve has a slide show and goes first. Starts her remarks by indicating she is glad there is an urbanist organization and not just “NIMIBY” voices. Fires up slide show.

First point by Van Cleve is that the courthouse is old. Courthouse built in 1931. Region has grown a lot. The venerable building served us well. But too many spots with duct tape and bailing wire. Particularly bad for mobility-impaired.

Kids and safety are an important enhancement in the proposal. Presently, there’s no space for kids to testify privately, no “safe” areas for kids, no daycare. Julia Spann, the Executive Director of SafePlace endorses strongly.

Van Cleve: the location is a transit hub.

Next few slides show a rough sketch of the building (she is clear no final design has been approved). The sketch has 14 Stories, 270 feet tall, 520k square feet space.
There’s a 4-level 513 parking spot garage underneath (monetized on evenings and weekends for ~$1 million).

Genevieve Van Cleve’s slide show then transitions to funding. It’s a great time to borrow while capital is cheap, Travis County has a great bond rating, some of cost covered by parking revenue, use the other half of the block for private entities to build a “tower”. There will be an Request for Information later in Summer to get a sense of interest in the other half of the block. Van Cleve points out that County dropped property taxes last year by 3%. The second tower could hold State, or County to put other land back in tax roles.

Van Cleve now quickly explains that most of Travis County revenue comes from property taxes and that most of the Travis County budget is justice and public safety activities.

What will it cost? Ad valorem tax rate for $100 assessed value: 0.0161.

Van Cleve wraps up with the strongest points that address common counter-arguments:
– The current courthouse can’t be expanded. It must be restored;
– The “have nots” are the ones that are stuck in the building. A functional, quality facility necessary for equal access to justice. It’s not right for kids to endure the “rathole” experience of justice before returning to a foster home.
– The per square foot cost is expensive because it’s not like a typical office; multiple elevator shafts for security an example of a costly detail. A blast floor (a common post-9/11 detail) is another one.
– Putting it on Airport will not make the design or build cheaper.

Dan Keshet has two clarifying questions.

Keshet: “What will it cost?” About $292 million according to Genevieve Van Cleve.

Keshet: “Where is the site?” Genevieve Van Cleve responds:Catty-corners to the Fed Courthouse (Republic Park)

Rahm McDaniel: Non-member that appreciates the diversity of viewpoints entertained within AURA. McDaniel understands why we need new building and appears to agree that downtown/Central Business District (CBD) is a traditional location choice in Texas.

McDaniel: $292m is a big sum of money. To make a successful case need to understand what it buys. McDaniel examined several high-profile builds. Blanton only reference with similar per square foot cost because its requirements are unique and more expensive. Frost cheaper, Austonian cheaper (Wikipedia is his source).

McDaniel: Some of the cost are things like technology or furniture that can become old quickly; concerned about procurement quality and the size of costs on depreciating assets.

Roger Cauvin enumerated a few issues worthy of thoughtful evaluation:
– Is this the highest and best use of location? vs. government services should be Central (transit access ~54 routes).
– Rail connection from East of Downtown or even to Seaholm (preserving that engineering for location) is an issue.
– Parking for urbanists is not an uncontroversial “good”. Might be too much.
– Activation of the sidewalk and activity outside business hours (Keeping the block “Alive after Five”, Judge Shepperd interjected).
– Timing of 2nd tower is another issue that deserves attention.
– Planned use of current courthouse also merits consideration.

Judge Eric Shepperd: “Alive after 5” is a priority. A model for proponents, Boston, even has an events manager. There’s an interest in allowing a professional theatre company into the building. Need the security to be able to run it more responsively, say after hours work, a lot of “pro se” (self-representation, no professional attorney) users. Sheppered reads quote from Cassius “Can the city make room for everybody? It must.” Now a quote from Justice Powell: “Buildings are about our aspirations”. The vision is to make it a working courthouse but it is also a place that kids can also visit.

Genevieve Van Cleve circles back to to cost. The design is in part costly so that there’s the security to have a use like a theatre in the building and the regular activities of the courthouse. She argues that 5 Texas courthouse shooting in last decade have all been family-related.

Judge Eric Shepperd: Cost also occurs from trying to design a relationship with park so it is an entry way.

Roger Cauvin is coaxed by Dan Keshet to explain “Great Streets”.

Cauvin: it is a sidewalk improvement program so that they are pleasing and inviting; gradual improvements based on order in which blocks are developed. Roger Cauvin: one concern from potential design has to do with potential drunk people moving back and forth, need to ensure their safety.

Genevieve Van Cleve: If you look at pricing, bottom line the County did a survey per square foot (she will be emailing the data). We are well within what it costs.
In any county with over 1m in USA, there’s not a Courthouse of this type that is not in a CBD location.

In response to an earlier point about political feasibility given the cost, Van Cleve explains that in the past two bond campaigns, there wasn’t enough explanation of what it is folks were voting at in terms of actual details…those things needed to be addressed. Get a lot of fancy mail and TV. This campaign is making a pitch based on the kinds of nitty-gritty facts folks want in one-on-one explanations.

Prodded by Dan Keshet about what the County would do if the bond fails, Genevieve Van Cleve indicates there’s no way the current Commissioners would vote to spend unless forced by a District Court Judge as a result of litigation about the conditions of the current building. If legally directed, then the County would probably use Certificates of Obligations or “COs” as the budget geeks amongst us call them.

Rahm McDaniel: We are dealing with the overhang of underinvestment in infrastructure as a result of Austinites desire to create a “protective blanket”, or keep their neighborhood in a “time capsule”…even good plans struggle whenever we have a plan that is for whatever reason perceived as “bloated”. Folks in NW Hills have incredibly popular schools and they barely can pass AISD bonds. Rahm McDaniel fears that as currently designed and being advertised it’s too much sticker shock…perhaps a cheaper one…would give us a better chance.

Genevieve Van Cleve: “What would you cut out?” question directed at Rahm McDaniel.

Rahm McDaniel: Need the detail in the $292 on the square foot…what is the portion that is building and what is depreciating assets such as tech or furniture?

Judge Eric Shepperd: $292 includes the furniture but unsure about technology.

Genevieve Van Cleve: Perhaps some of the the new tech companies can give to wire and support. We should invest in what we need, it shouldn’t be piecemeal. Need to look citizens in eye and do the infrastructure and build stuff every 100 years or so. Not sure cutting stuff from the $292m does anyone service.

Dan Keshet: What would you cut, Roger?

(Shared laughter about parking) Cauvin: So, what would it cost above ground…

Judge Eric Shepperd: We get pressure on parking from both sides in the debate…there’s 325 staffers in the building and we need spaces for people that come in; on “jury weeks” we have maybe 300-500 people going through and if you expand that is a lot of people to potentially park.

Rahm McDaniel: The car-free future is laudable goal but it seems that the viability of the complex requires parking.

Roger Cauvin: A certain amount of parking is acceptable, but if its ~$20m (“well let’s figure it out” said Genevieve Van Cleve about the figure), perhaps the planned amount will undermine the transit utilization.

Judge Eric Shepperd: To take down cost of building, Judge Eckhardt worked to put underutilized County buildings in market (e.g. Palm Square on I-35 as one example) to help pay down the cost of it faster.

Rahm McDaniel: Location point…Austin has a future of regional centers, at least in the plans such as Imagine Austin; let’s use this project to create a new center. A way to jumpstart a 2nd downtown.

Judge Eric Shepperd: Any building in Highland will vacate some downtown so it is not shaping growth as much as just moving around a fixed number of lawyers.

Keshet indicates it is time for audience questions.

Audience question from Rick Cofer: What are options for old courthouse…

Judge Eric Shepperd: Renovate it into functions, maybe as a way to show kids how the courthouse works.

Genevieve Van Cleve: Goes back to earlier argument. To jumpstart the 2nd downtown, the split is creating new problems for the “have nots” that use several facilities.

Next audience question from Steven Yarak: Would the Constable’s current office be your preference for new building if Legislature waived Wooldridge Park Capitol View Corridor?

Genevieve Van Cleve: Yes. But we tried 10 years and it is still there. Build it right across the street from the Constable if we could.

Last audience question was from a student-aged woman:

How would the campaign explain that the County resources are better used for a new administrative building instead of for schools and transit…

Genevieve Van Cleve and Judge Eric Shepperd: School and transit are not areas the County traditionally funds, whereas the Courthouse is at the heart of its mandates services.

Dan Keshet thanked everyone and closed the panel.

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