New Downtown Austin Federal Courthouse Opens, Exorcises Ghost of Intel Shell

There’s some well-received news this month that Austin’s new Federal courthouse at 5th Street and San Antonio has completed construction and is open for business.

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A quick tour around the building Sunday night yielded no clues that for the past few years the site has been under heavy construction - certainly neighboring 360 Condos are relieved - and Sunday it was well-lit and inviting with a handful of people strolling around in the nice weather.

KUT has a nice slideshow posted on its Flickr account of the exterior and interior of the seven-story, $123-million building design by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, out of Atlanta, and constructed by our own White Construction, officed in Bee Caves.

What’s exciting for the rest of us not in the legal system is a nice area on the east site of the courthouse populated with benches that will flow well into Republic Square Park. I’m excited about this project lending a daily injection of energy and excitement to the park, and envision clients, lawyers and clerks all enjoying the open space to eat lunch and talk shop.

Maybe a hotdog and coffee vendor will set up shop in the park? Every time I watch Law & Order, the characters share a bite and broker a plea.

For the uninitiated: That site used to be a albatross on downtown, infamously known as the Intel shell, after Intel planted a flag downtown with a $124-million chip design center, but then had second thoughts, leaving only a four-story steel shell and concrete decks. The Feds bought the property from Intel in January 2004 for $8.89 million, and White Construction signed a deal to start preconstruction. In 2006, we got out first look at the design. The Intel Shell bit the dust, literally, in 2007 when it was destroyed, and in 2009 federal stimulus dollars shifted the project into overdrive… then wha-la!

What remains to be seen is what becomes of the former federal courthouse on W. 8th St. That one was built all the way back in 1935, after U.S. Congressman J. P. Buchanan introduced an appropriations measure for $415,000 and well-known Austin architect Charles H. Page drafted up the design. The Art Deco building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is certainly not going to be destroyed. No one seems to know what will be in store for the building, but I certainly hope it doesn’t languish in disuse.

There had been some chatter about a U.S. Patent office taking up residence there, but the local effort to land it was bested by Dallas’s earlier this year.

Maybe with plans stalled for the UT headquarters construction, just a block south of the old courthouse, some clever and well-connected minds will get together to figure out how those historic buildings could be incorporated into a future development, with some more density. That old courthouse is only four stories, ya know. (Nudge, nudge clever and well-connected minds: the GSA's South Central Texas Service Center is the one you should contact to get the ball rolling.)