Travis County pulling the trigger on downtown Austin development

Just before Christmas, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Travis County has more than $1 billion of development planned in downtown.

According to the Statesman: “The spending is guided by a master plan looking out to 2035 that calls for keeping some county offices downtown and expanding the space for them as services increase to meet population growth.”

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Above: Travis County owned block

Two months ago, the county closed on its most recent purchase of $7.25 million for a quarter-acre parking lot on the NW corner of 11th and San Antonio streets. The deal, which appears to have been pitched to the county by local firm D2000 as a turn-key lease with an option to buy, before the County decided to outright buy the land, will house a new 127,000 sq. ft. office building for the Travis County district attorney and county attorney prosecutors.

The county also issued bonds in 2010 to buy a building at 700 Lavaca St., which has private business tenants and will be converted into an admin headquarters.

The most well-known county project, of course, is a $200-$300 million courthouse on the land south of Republic Square Park purchased from the Austin Museum of Art at the end of 2010 for $21.75 million. Mind you, this isn't a case of the government salvaging an eyesore, like the Feds did with the Intel Shell next door. In fact, the county had to out-bid private developers for the land and eliminated a very attractive piece of land unencumbered from the capitol view corridor from private development, even though one of the ideas floated by the county is a public-private deal that includes a 72-story skyscraper.

It should be said that according to the last line in the Statesman article, the voters would like a say in whether the project moves forward. I feel less than confident the public would approve the plan, which would possibly mean the lot will come back to the seller’s block.

News about $1 billion in development downtown sounds like a good thing, but I think we should clarify that $1 billion in bond, or tax, funded construction that will result in a negligible long-term neighborhood benefits is different than $1 billion in private development with streetscape promenades, retail, sidewalk cafés and restaurants. (Read: Vibrant, fun places that also are sales tax generators.)

Government development on prime downtown land, mainly near Republic Park, also removes it from the property tax generators. (Civics lesson: Private development downtown significantly boosts property and sales tax revenue, which subsidizes city services for the ‘burbs.)

Will any of this change as the make-up of the commissioner’s court changes? Judge Sam Biscoe has certainly been a major pusher of the projects and he is leaving the bench to be replaced by either Gonzalo Barrientos, Sarah Eckhardt, or Andy Brown.

At least one county commissioner – returning Gerald Daugherty who represents the west and Oak Hill – thinks the new development would be better suited on the county’s North Campus along Airport Boulevard.

Take note here, everyone. It’s not often (or really ever) that Commissioner Daugherty – one of those who helped slay the 2000 light rail election by a hair – has many fans among those who live in downtown, but this might be one of them.

As a parting thought, consider that the Texas Attorney General, of all people, has been a thorn in the county’s side when it comes to its downtown dealings, too. According to the ABJ “county officials were ‘surprised by the amount of push back’ from Abbott when the county issued $65 million in bonds in 2010 to buy the 700 Lavaca Street building.”