Where to put Travis offices and staff through 2035?
Apr 25, 2010

As population swells, county will look to boost staffing, space downtown.

By Suzannah Gonzales AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

April 25, 2010

 

By 2035, Travis County will need nearly double the amount of staff members downtown as it has currently. Also by then, the county will need more than double the amount of downtown office space that it has now. The conclusions are part of a broad effort to study how the county should expand downtown over the next 25 years to keep pace with the county's swelling population, now more than 1 million, according to the most recent U.S. census estimates. An assessment of future needs confirmed that downtown county offices already are cramped for space.

 

"There's a correlation between the services the county provides, the growth of the county as it impacts staffing needs and square footage," said Stephen Coulston of Broaddus & Associates, which is leading a team of consultants in the county's so-called downtown Central Campus master plan.

 

That plan includes civil, criminal and probate courts, the district attorney and county attorney's offices and county administrative offices.

 

"The good news," Coulston said, "is that we have a county government (that) rather than have a knee-jerk reaction with a Band-Aid solution, (says), 'Let's be very methodical, thoughtful and proactive on how we anticipate the impact of this growth.' "

 

A public meeting on expansion plans is scheduled at 10 a.m. May 8 in the Commissioners Courtroom, 314 W. 11th St. Another public meeting there is set for 6 p.m. May 13. At a community meeting in July, three "concept scenarios" will be presented, and the public will have a another chance to give comments. And early next year, Travis County commissioners are expected to hear recommendations on where each county department should be located downtown and what to do with the county's current buildings.

 

In May, commissioners approved a $1.5 million contract with Broaddus for a two-phase study — the first phase was an assessment of the county's future needs, and the second includes determining how to meet those needs. Four of the five commissioners voted in favor of the contract. Ron Davis abstained, saying he was concerned about a financial commitment in a tough economy.

 

During the first phase, from June to February, Broaddus consultants analyzed the space and staffing needs for each of the county's more than 30 departments downtown through 2035, basing their conclusions on interviews with county leaders, as well as from county population projections from the state demographer's office. The consultants also reviewed and revised the county's existing standards on office space and created new standards for court space. The consultant's recommendation: The number of employees downtown, now at 1,900, will need to grow to about 3,380 by 2035, and the 527,473 square feet of existing space should be expanded to 1.1 million.

 

The county's purchase of 700 Lavaca St. (and an adjacent parking garage) could alleviate a space crunch for several county offices, Coulston said. The 15-story downtown office building is about 315,000 square feet, and more than 301,000 usable square feet of space will be needed in 2035 for general government purposes, he noted.

 

The county signed a purchase-and-sale agreement in January for $61.25 million for 700 Lavaca and the parking garage to the north, and after action last week, plans to close on the property June 15 or 16. Also, earlier this month, commissioners approved development guidelines for what's being called the North Campus, on Airport Boulevard, one of the largest clusters of county offices outside of downtown. County officials said they would incorporate the Central Campus effort into any plans for the North Campus. Coulston said the Central Campus effort also will take into account a similar City of Austin effort and Capital Metro transportation plans.

 

Texas Association of Counties spokeswoman Elna Christopher said she has seen similar planning efforts in high-growth counties, such as Hays County, counties around Harris County and counties around Dallas and Fort Worth. "It's not that they want to grow," she said. "It's a situation of dealing with reality and trying to get a handle on it and trying to get ahead of it."

 

As the population grows, once-rural counties are becoming suburban counties — like Bastrop, Burnet, Comal, Hays and Williamson counties — with more people moving to those counties surrounding big cities, Christopher said. "That means more services are demanded. More people, more crime, more jails, more courts."

 

The number of county government employees depends on the kinds of services the county provides, Christopher said, adding that at least 70 percent of county services are mandated by the state. For example, the state mandates that counties pay for lawyers for criminal defendants who can't afford their own, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires a certain number of jailers per inmate, among other requirements, she said.

 

Travis County officials have been concerned about space for years. A 2002 report by county staff projected that the county would need by 2020 an additional 575,600 square feet of office space in and around Austin's central business district.

 

As a result of the 2002 report, Biscoe said some county offices were moved to Airport Boulevard. But he said the report was not a comprehensive review and back then, the county's need for more space "wasn't as critical as it was now."

 

At the Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse one recent afternoon, state District Judge John Dietz said he and others had been lobbying the Commissioners Court since 2003 because "we are flat out of room in this courthouse." As population grows, so does certain crime as well as some litigation, Dietz said. "There literally is no place to go," he said. "We cannot expand a court, enlarge operations. We have used every nook and cranny of this 80-year-old building."

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