Austin Bar: Zimmerman Resolution Not Best for East Austin

From the Austin Bar:

A recent resolution put forth by Austin City Council Members Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman on the topic of moving the proposed Civil and Family Courts Complex (CFCC) to East Austin is not a solid plan.  While spurring economic growth in that area of Travis County is clearly something the City should, and wants, to do – moving the CFCC out of the Central Business District is not the way to do it.

The land Zimmerman is proposing to “swap” is currently park land planned for residential expansion. The County purchased the block at 3rd and Guadalupe seven years ago for more than $22 million. The value of that property has increased substantially since then. Rather than saving taxpayers $50 million, as Zimmerman said in an interview yesterday, they would actually have to pay the County many millions in order to exchange property with such disparate values. The cost of building the courthouse would remain the same no matter where is was built. Construction costs are constructions costs. Period.

The under-researched resolution also misses the mark on these points:

  1. This resolution comes after the County Commissioners have completed years of study and have already voted to put the $287 million bond on the November election.
  2. Starting over now would mean scraping all plans and doing a complete redesign – wasting millions of dollars and delaying the project by many more years.  The HMS Courthouse is 84 years old and no longer services the needs of the citizens of Travis County.  The County is MANDATED to provide safe, secure, accessible and functional facilities to house the Courts. They can’t afford to wait any longer.
  3. The resolution talks about affordability, but another major private development in downtown does nothing to address the affordability issue.
  4. The downtown location has 54 Capital Metro bus lines that intersect near Republic Park.
  5. The Walter Long Lake site has only one bus route to that area.
  6. Many women and children involved in CPS and domestic violence cases rely on public transportation.  These cases make up a large portion of the docket at the CFCC.
  7. All major metropolitan areas in the country have their courthouses downtown. It is a neutral site for resolving disputes and it denotes the heart of a community.
  8. The resolution sites downtown traffic congestion, but selling the downtown site to a private developer would do nothing to alleviate traffic concerns.  Unlike the County’s plan, a private developer wouldn’t build a 4-story underground parking structure to provide over 200 parking spaces to the public during the day, and over 500 spaces after hours.  These parking spaces would also generate income for the County – something that would not happen at a location in Northeast Austin.
  9. A second, privately built tower will be built downtown on the same site as the CFCC to help offset the cost of the project and provide leasing income for the County. The demand for this lease space would be non-existent outside of downtown.
  10. The new CFCC will include space for the Travis County Law Library and Self-Help Center.  The patrons of this legal resource are mainly pro se litigants who represent themselves in civil and family court matters because they can’t afford to hire an attorney.  The majority of them use public transportation. Thousands of Travis County citizens receive help for such things as uncontested family law cases, obtaining occupational driver’s licenses, expunctions, and landlord/tenant issues.  The Law Library and Self-Help Center will offer expanded hours in the new CFCC, along with expanded evening legal clinics, so that people who can’t miss work without being penalized will be able to have access to justice beyond the hours of 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.  Without public transportation in a Northeast Austin location – these services cannot be expanded and an entire population of Austin’s working poor cannot be served.
  11. The economic impact to downtown would be significant if the courts moved out of downtown. The legal community is a major economic engine for the downtown business district with 35% of class-A office space being utilized by law firms.  In addition to the legal professionals who patronize local shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, print shops and numerous other support businesses in the downtown area, the courthouse also attracts about 200,000 visitors a year.
  12. Conversely, none of these support business exist in the Northeast Austin location and there is no infrastructure in place to accommodate them..
  13. Travis County is only one of two counties in the state to use a Centralized Docket System to assign civil and family cases. This system allows cases to be heard quickly and judicial time to be maximized. As a result, Travis County residents have swift and clear access to the resolution of their personal and business disputes. The Centralized Docket System relies on judges, lawyers, and court personnel being in one place. This system wouldn’t work if the courts were spread out over multiple locations. This splintered approach would cost the taxpayers much more money in the long run.

This resolution does nothing to help stimulate growth in East Austin. Instead, it subverts a well thought-out, financially sound plan the County has been working on for years.  The County Commissioners voted unanimously to bring this plan before the Travis County voters in November. In the past ten years, multiple scenarios with alternative locations such as this one have already been asked of, and answered by, the Commissioners Court and the Community Focus Committee. With the November election a mere eight weeks away, the question of why this was not brought before the Court in the years leading up to this point, is one that begs to be answered.

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