A large expenditure of public funds is always hotly debated. In this instance, forces internal to the County have been debating the eventual expenditure on a civil courthouse expansion for a number of years. Judges, clerks, attorneys and others who practice in the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse (HMS) have long urged the Commissioners Court to take action toward securing a site for expansion. The HMS, built in 1931 and expanded to its probable maximum in 1964, has served this community’s justice needs for almost 80 years. The HMS is currently 94.4% over its capacity for efficient use and, if no expansion is undertaken, expected to be at 161.6% overcapacity by 2015 and 249% overcapacity by 2035.
In this context, the Commissioners Court began a search for available property near the current justice complex, accessible by transit and appropriately sized to accommodate the needs of a growing population for the next 25 years or more. The block at 4th and Guadalupe is one of the few remaining vacant full blocks in the Central Business District that meets these requirements. Furthermore, the current slowdown in construction presented an opportunity for the public to obtain this site at an appropriate cost and attractive interest rate.
The expenditure for the court expansion — a necessary purchase at an appropriate price — is driven by the considerable growth of our community. As for the location, some have complained about this property being taken off the tax rolls as a courthouse rather than allowing it to become an office building or a residential tower. While offices and residences are certainly in demand in our downtown, civil courts are a necessity. Moving our county and district courts out of the downtown area would be impractical, inefficient and symbolically degrading. Public and private entities inextricably connected to the provision of civil justice are predominantly located in the downtown area. The long-held tradition of locating courts in the center of communities is commensurate with the importance our democracy ascribes to the judicial branch of government. We place our legislatures, our highest executive offices and our courts in the center of our communities.
While our population is certainly expanding outward, the center of our community remains clustered at the banks of the Colorado between Waller Creek and Shoal Creek as it has for more than a century. This location was identified in the Republic of Texas grant of land as the site of a county courthouse in 1839. The original county courthouse was located on this same block in 1855 in keeping with the urban plan devised by Judge Edwin Waller. This expansion is necessary, the price of the land is appropriate and the location is practically, symbolically and historically consistent.