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Courthouse committee discusses layout

20110916_Hidalgo-County-SealEDINBURG —Members of the Hidalgo County Courthouse Master Plan Committee met on Wednesday to see layout and site ideas to bring to Hidalgo County commissioners in the next few months when the plan is complete.

During the group’s third brainstorm session, officials discussed the current progress of the project and announced that the ideas discussed will be presented to the general public at four “Precinct Community Forums” starting Feb. 15.

Before beginning the session, consultant Brian Godinez reminded committee members that a meeting held last month between county officials and the City of Edinburg where ERO Architects produced a preliminary draft of the courthouse designs was to update Edinburg officials, “our clients,” on the project.

“We had to do this in order to give them a sense of mass and scope,” Godinez explained. “It was strictly for our meeting. We’re not in a design phase. We’re in a master planning phase.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, attendees also got a breakdown of what Edinburg had done in its downtown master plan that incorporates the courthouse renovations.

The city will invest over $8.2 million in projects around the courthouse square to show it’s able to sustain the courthouse, said Nelda Ramirez, the executive director of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.

Tom Reyna, the assistant director of Edinburg’s public works department, said the city has engaged in construction projects like creating a new pedestrian walkway near McIntyre Street, which should start around March. The street maintenance program will connect to areas around the courthouse. That project has an estimated cost of $2.7 million.

The city is also spending around $250,000 on its downtown master plan, which includes updating of its codes.

For transportation, the city is working with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council to develop a metro transportation facility in the area to bring access to major Edinburg arteries like the courthouse and the University of Texas-Pan American. That is estimated to cost around $1.5 million.

Other projects include developing and maintaining an art district.

The city has also contributed $100,000 to the county’s master plan.

Issues on how to fund the current courthouse renovations were also discussed.

Gilbert Gallegos, with Gallegos Project Management, said grants from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program has provided around $227 million to 82 counties for restorations and renovations. But while that money is set aside during Legislative sessions, it’s unclear when that money or how much money could be available in the program.

Only three counties have tried to demolish their historic courthouses, but their attempts eventually fizzled out. Gallegos said it was unclear why their attempts stopped, but speculated it might have to do with the strict historical rules the state has on buildings over 50 years old.

“If three counties have already tried, three counties have abandoned their efforts and this place has been designated as a historical treasure, probably our best option would be, as we discussed in the past, to just go out there and see what are the existing constraints so we can go out there and properly renovate the existing facility,” Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said.

Likewise, in later discussions about layout options for the master plan, Godinez said the committee wouldn’t recommend to the commissioners’ court that the county demolish the current courthouse.

“We are going to move forward on how to preserve it, renovate it for use,” he said.

The cost to renovate and bring the current courthouse up to code will cost around $15 million, said Eli Ochoa with ERO Architects.

To build a seven-story building, which would include seven floors and the ability to add on additional floors later, could have a construction cost of approximately $55 million, he added.

In layout drafts presented to the group, each floor would house four different courtrooms. In each scenario, Ochoa said it was important to identify ways to separate the criminals on trial from the general public as well as staff and judges in the courthouse.

The county needs to create approximately 361,000 square feet of space to accommodate the county’s growth and needs. Currently, the county has 101,000 square feet of space, which is scattered in different buildings.

“We would hope to not have to construct all 361,000 square feet,” Ochoa said. “We came up with a plan to try to utilize as much of the existing buildings as we can just going through remediation and renovation mode.”

After community meetings, the group will meet once more before a joint workshop is held between the county and Edinburg. The final master plan will be presented to the commissioners’ court in mid-March where officials are expected to vote on how to proceed with the courthouse renovations, Godinez said.

The group’s final master plan session will be Feb. 29.

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