Proposed courthouse project attracts international interest in private partnership
May 23, 2011

By Suzannah Gonzales

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Monday, May 23, 2011

 

Travis County hasn't yet decided whether to collaborate with a private company to build the new civil courthouse, planned for a downtown lot steps from the lake and the burgeoning Second Street entertainment district. But the project already has attracted potential suitors from across the globe. County officials have met with nearly 40 representatives of about 20 development firms interested in working on the project, including some with offices in New York, Sweden and Canada.

 

"They all expressed keen interest," County Judge Sam Biscoe said. "The bottom line was: Keep us in mind. We are interested in working with you."

 

The informal meetings occurred before commissioners narrowly voted in April to formally solicit ideas for a public-private partnership from developers. Those proposals are due June 30. Today , commissioners are scheduled to discuss how to proceed and whether to solicit outside expertise to help them review the proposals and decide whether to go with a public-private partnership at all. But Biscoe said Monday that he has recommended waiting a week so that commissioners can get legal advice.

 

Firms expressing interest include:

  • Meridiam Infrastructure , which is leading a private consortium that will pay for, construct, design and operate a $490 million courthouse in Long Beach, Calif., expected to open in 2013. Meridiam has offices in Paris, New York and Toronto.

  • Stockholm-based Skanska , which also has public-private partnership experience, according to its website.

  • Broaddus & Associates, an Austin-based firm that has led a team of consultants in the county's so-called downtown Central Campus master plan. That master plan calls for a 17-story courthouse with close to 500,000 square feet.

 

Biscoe said the new courthouse should serve the county for up to 80 years and allow for future expansion. The county's current civil courthouse opened in 1931, and officials say they are out of space there. In late December, the county bought a vacant block south of Republic Square Park from the Austin Museum of Art for $21.8 million.

 

Charles Heimsath , president of Capitol Market Research , an Austin-based real estate consulting firm, said interest in the project isn't surprising. A great city; good job growth; a full, vacant block that's unencumbered by Capitol view corridor limitations; and an opportunity to partner with a county government in strong financial shape — "who wouldn't be interested?" Heimsath said. Nationally, the Travis County courthouse project is absolutely a plum one, he said. "This would certainly pop up on your radar screen if you are actively looking to develop."

 

Heimsath, who's also a Downtown Austin Alliance board member, said he has had some preliminary discussions with developers about the project, but he declined to elaborate. A public-private partnership has advantages over a traditional government-funded project because it would use private money up front to more efficiently and cost-effectively complete the job, Biscoe said.

 

The courthouse construction is expected to cost at least $300 million, officials have said. County leaders have said that they may call a bond election to pay for construction. The representatives Biscoe met with tried to demonstrate that they had the financial ability to do the project, he said. "They said either we have the money or we can get it."

News