Judging the Courthouse

The pros & cons of the proposed Civil & Family Courthouse.

judging-the-courthouse

This November, Travis County voters will be choosing whether to allow sale of $287 million in bonds to build a new Civil & Family Courthouse. Here are the main five topics discussed by proponents and opponents.

Is there a need for additional capacity?

Yes. Population growth combined with wear-and-tear on the existing facility (the H.M. Sweatt Courthouse) create a need for additional square footage focused on civil and family proceedings.

The external consultant team that estimated the space required for civil and family purposes indicated a need of 526,000 square feet by 2035 (PDF).  The Sweatt courthouse has about 158,000 square feet (after three expansions) and its crowding and unusual usage patterns (e.g. “hallways as ad hoc meeting rooms”) are the result of a current need of about 300,000 square feet for existing functions and other uses that will be consolidated into the proposed facility. While the state of disrepair of the current facility has gotten a lot of attention, it is the growing gap in required capacity that is pushing the County Commissioners to roll the dice with Austin’s tax-averse electorate.

How are the space requirements calculated? First, planners estimate likely population growth. Then they look at the population’s rate of undertaking the types of legal and administrative proceedings handled by the County. Multiply them and you have an estimate of the County’s caseload. With that estimate in hand, facility planners then look at staff needed to handle the proceedings in a “timely” (i.e. not going to get sued for violating due process) fashion. Planners then calculate the count for different types of rooms that staff will need. Each room gets a square footage size. For example, a civil jury courtroom is 1,800 square feet. A judge’s office is estimated to require 240 square feet. An attorney-client interview room is 100 square feet. And so on. Add all of the rooms up and you get the estimate of total necessary square footage.

According to the County’s plans, there’s a current need of 25 courtrooms (only 19 fit into Sweatt) serving a population of about 1.2 million. That’s one court per 48,000 residents. By 2035, planners expect 39 courts will be needed for about 1.6 million. That’s one court per 41,000 residents. It’s possible that (1) population growth might slow and that (2) the rate of proceedings per capita might plummet and that (3) future generations of County judges and employees could be just as productive with smaller offices, meeting rooms, and court rooms. However, it would take an unlikely combination of these three to completely eliminate the need for substantial new capacity over the next century.  So, even if the County’s estimates feature some error, the impact is most likely only going to change when precisely new space is required over the coming century. The space will eventually be needed.

Is this capacity being bought at a reasonable price?

The per square foot price is reasonable given similar builds in other communities.

The consultants helping County officials determine a “reasonable” per square foot price examined 15 facilities across the country. These facilities are a mix of similar local civil facilities as well as Federal and criminal buildings. The latter are considered to face more threats and therefore have costly design elements intended to boost safety.

courthouse-sqft-comps

Source: Presentation by Belinda Powell, Travis County planner

The square footage cost for the Courthouse is in-line with other Texas projects; it’s not as expensive as the West Coast or as inexpensive as the South East. Here’s a list of the specific facilities included in the calculation of regional costs.

courthouse-comps-list

Source: Mark Gilbert, Travis County planner 

Some argue that these per square foot prices are unreasonable given commercial projects. As one delves into the document trail of this proposal, it becomes quickly clear how specialized and therefore costly courthouse space is compared to, say, plain-vanilla office buildings. There are safety requirements such as separated elevators, the unique design of courtrooms, and a need for many types of unique office spaces (labs, large meeting rooms, holding rooms, child-friendly waiting rooms, etc.) that just don’t come up, in say, a conventional government office full of professional staff and middle-managers.

Skeptics will latch on to one or two features that seem excessive (separate elevators for judges, information technology fixtures) as a way of indicting the project. I sympathize with some objections. But again, if we examine the comparable projects, it just doesn’t seem any one of these expenses is evidence of an abnormally expensive overall build.

This project was unanimously supported by the County Commissioners. The body presently includes two very “fiscally-conservative” members – Gerald Daugherty and Margaret Gomez. Certainly, scrutiny is warranted as the design and purchasing details are finalized. While the cost is reasonable, there might be some opportunities to reduce the cost as actual blueprints start to be considered. But that is different from voting against authorizing any funding whatsoever. Ultimately, to deem a once-every-fifty-years project unreasonably costly based on a “hunch” about a design feature or a strained comparison to a single “benchmark” project seems too thin a rationale to justify postponement.

Is the location optimal?

Yes. Let’s examine the top 3 opportunity cost arguments made.

“Prime” Real Estate

Some oppose the proposed Courthouse site because they believe the location’s highest and best use is a commercial or residential tower. This type of development would provide much needed residential and/or office space, as well as contribute significant tax revenue (e.g. $2-4 million in property taxes to the City per year).

These opportunity costs are real in the short-term. However, any reasonable location that is central and near abundant transit (i.e. somewhere else Downtown, somewhere in the core, somewhere just East of the University of Texas, etc.) will have essentially identical opportunity costs in terms of development and foregone tax revenue over the century or so the structure is in service.

A different risk is the possibility that County Commissioners will choose to develop the southern portion of the land they own adjacent to the Courthouse site in a fashion that is not the most productive use either in terms of the structure or tax revenue generated.

While this turn of events would be at odds with the repeatedly stated desires of the County-level elected officials to reduce the impact of the new Courthouse project on taxpayers, it’s possible they might choose to build “as small as prudent”.

So, one might choose to vote against the Courthouse to encourage an outright sale of the southern portion. However, if the vote referendum fails, it is quite unlikely the Commissioners sell any portion the land. Perhaps they will seek a bond referendum to build a smaller, cheaper facility or simply wait a few more years until litigation based on the conditions at Sweatt forces a build. These are the likeliest scenarios and none of them lead to the sale of the southern land portion.

Finally, we can actually make more “downtown” by expanding the areas where downtown-like development is allowed.

Transportation

The conventional take on the location is that it is wise because it is presently adjacent to some of the most highly-served bus stops in the region. According to County planners, there are 54 bus routes within walkable distance. Certainly, it’s possible that the precise stops might change or that the frequency might change, but the economic logic that places so much bus service near the proposed location is rock-solid. The Courthouse is located where the jobs are and where local government buildings (including courts) are.

employment-density-2010

This map by the City Demographer shows the reason for the fundamental “pull” of bus services into the central business district: jobs. 

However, there are a batch of opponents that urge rejection of the proposed location due to the need for westward expansion of the Red Line commuter rail service. The proposed site is the only remaining undeveloped parcel that would facilitate said expansion, in their view. Needless to say, such an expansion is not planned or politically feasible. Moreover, many pro-transit advocates are weary of throwing even more resources at the already massively subsidized Red Line. There’s no realistic opportunity cost here.

Economic Development

Some City Council Members believe the Courthouse should be built somewhere East of 183 to encourage economic development. Advocates of this approach also argue the County should sell the existing proposal’s land, allocating the proceeds towards tax relief or economic development initiatives. A different set of critics also believe that the project should be used to “shape” a new “mid-town” somewhere outside of the central business district.

By itself, the Courthouse isn’t a large enough employer – County staff would range between 350 and 400 employees. The Courthouse also doesn’t have enough complementary economic activities that it can be a jobs anchor. It’s not a university, or hospital, or large company that requires a vendor eco-system nearby.

courthouse-law-firm-density

One building is unlikely to change where lawyers prefer to concentrate. Data source: County planner Belinda Powell.

The most compelling private sector jobs the Courthouse could pull are lawyers that serve clients with business at the Courthouse. A location change doesn’t increase demand for their services. While maybe some offices shift and some support services (like restaurants) arise from that activity, the risks of productivity loss (traffic!) for lawyers undermines the possibility of accretive regional economic activity.

Is it a good building design?

Not yet. There’s too much parking and a potentially unappealing street-level experience.

While there are no final design details yet, the County envisions a requirement of four levels of parking (513 spaces) based on an expectation that 80% of employees will drive to work. This is an irresponsibly high number given the need for a shift away from car-centric planning and the site’s location in a transit rich area. According to County planners, there are already over 4,300 parking spaces within 3 blocks of the proposed site. Each of the proposed four parking levels will cost $7-8 million, according to County planners.  A fifth level would cost $10-12 million due to the tougher limestone at that depth.  The focus of the ambitious parking facilities is the staff, not residents attending proceedings.

courthouse-parking-staff

Source: Presentation by Belinda Powell, Travis County planner

The details of the street experience are yet-to-be finalized. It is completely reasonable that at this stage there are no finalized designs. However, in public statements and presentations about the design principles, there’s inconsistent commitment to creating an inviting and active ground-level design for the Courthouse through retail uses open after business hours and well-designed sidewalks.  Below is a preliminary first-floor layout. Note how there’s at best one or two non-court uses, undermining activity after business hours.

courthouse-level-1

Level 1 floor plan concept.

While it’s possible that we might be surprised by a visionary design that contributes to a vibrant street around the clock, there’s no evidence such a design is a likely outcome.

Is it an affordable expense?

Yes. The effect on taxes and rents will be modest.  For example, after tax exemptions, the owner of a $500,000 home would pay an additional $65 per year for twenty years. So, we are still in the “taco-per-month” cost for the median homestead (approximately a $220,000 valuation) at a bit less than $3 per month.  If the rental market remains tight, renters will likely see a similarly-sized pass-through into their rents over time.

courthouse-cost-estimate

Genevieve Van Cleve of “New Courts for Families” produced this chart based on data from County planner Belinda Powell. 

The administration of courts is typically around 20% of the County Budget; it is one of the main County functions along with corrections and public safety.  This is not an optional, “nice-to-have” expense. Borrowing rates for local governments remain very attractive for basic infrastructure in the wake of the aggressive monetary policy shift following the 2008 recession.  A vote against authorizing the proposed bond sale does not eliminate the County’s demand for additional square footage space. Instead, it creates an incentive for an incomplete design built with potentially higher borrowing costs.

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