Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Split Council gives Courthouse Alternative Bronx Cheer

Left to Right: Council members Pio Renteria, Ellen Troxclair, Kathy Tovo, Leslie Pool, Don Zimmerman, and Ora Houston
"There is desirable treasure,
And oil in the dwelling of the wise,
But a foolish man squanders it.
Proverbs 21:20

Austin City Hall -- In a disappointing development, Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair (Southwest Austin) was unable to obtain a second in today's hearing in the Audit and Finance committee to forward an alternative County courthouse proposal to the full Council.

[Author's Note: Our testimony begins at the 7 minute mark.]

The proposal, by Council members Don Zimmerman (Far Northwest Austin) and Ora Houston (East Austin), would have directed the City Manager to find an alternative location from city owned property in East Austin.

Council member Houston discussed the potential for an alternative courthouse location to spur economic development in her district.  She advocated creating "alternative population centers" beyond downtown.  Going back to 2013, residents in Houston's district have asked why major governmental development needs to take place in a downtown area that is already severely congested.  Also, the cost of downtown parking is a serious hurdle her district's residents when they use the current courthouse.  Zimmerman explained common financial objections to the current proposal and mentioned that the city could collect $87 million in property tax revenue over the next 40 years from a mixed-use development on the current proposed courthouse location.

During public testimony, this author stuck to the logistical nightmare the current proposal entails.  As a governmental building where people come and go at 9AM and 5PM, a new courthouse 1.5 blocks from City Hall would deposit more cars on already gridlocked downtown streets during the worst of rush hour.  A mixed-use facility, by contrast, would have people coming and going throughout the day and wouldn't worsen the rush hour bottleneck.  We also pointed out that people who do business at the courthouse but don't have office space downtown hate the logistical nightmare of doing so.  Finally, we mentioned that if bus service to that part of town was insufficient, it was far easier to add bus service to East Austin than it would be to surmount the logistical nightmare the current proposal worsens.

A representative from the pro-Courthouse side spoke next.  She outlined the litany of complaints about the current courthouse that no one disputes.  Calling East Austin "the middle of nowhere," she said "the people's business belongs centrally [sic]."  She mentioned Gerald Daugherty, the Republican county commissioner whose support for this proposal has landed him in hot water.  Finally, the pro-courthouse representative appealed to bureaucratic solidarity with "a sister body," your "fellow governmental entity."

Council Member Houston took offense at the characterization of East Austin as "the middle of nowhere."  She chastised the pro-Courthouse representative: "thank you for telling us what's best for us."  She also said that Travis County had yet to respond to request she'd made for information on the current proposal.  Council member Houston got the pro-Courthouse representative to admit between one-third and 40% of the parking at the new facility would go to Courthouse staff.  Finally, Council member Houston cited this author's point about the ease of redesigning bus routes favorably.

At this point, Council member Zimmerman pointed out that by building "out" instead of "up," an East Austin courthouse would cost between one-third and half of the downtown proposal.

Local activist David King closed public testimony by calling the alternative proposal a "GREAT" idea: "if we're serious about equity, this is our opportunity."

In response to public testimony, Council Member Pio Renteria (Southeast Austin) said he couldn't support the alternative proposal unless the county were to move all the county offices along with the Courthouse.  Council members Kathy Tovo (Central Austin) and Leslie Pool (North Central Austin) echoed the pro-Courthouse representative's bureaucratic solidarity argument.  When Council member Troxclair attempted to forward the resolution to the full council, she couldn't find a second.

Bottom Line: While the resolution was unsuccessful, today's hearing highlighted public interest in a better alternative to the current proposal.  Rather than a playground for rich downtown lawyers on prime real estate, Travis County needs a courthouse for everyone.  Public demand exists.


Highlighting the logistical nightmare of the current proposal, within two minutes and half-a-block of City Hall, we saw this:

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