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20120106_Possible_Courthouse_ComplexEDINBURG — Images of preliminary drafts for the Hidalgo County Courthouse includes an eight-story building, but seem nothing like what community appointees said they had hoped for.

“I was totally out of the loop,” said Mission resident Virginia Townsend, a community-at-large appointee for Precinct 3, of her reaction to the architectural images.

The drafts by ERO Architects, the firm contracted to develop the plans, went against the process the committee – which includes county officials, their staff and four community members – had discussed, she said.

Townsend, who is also a member of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS), expected to be presented with different options after the committee had discussed which features and needs should be incorporated in the design.

“I certainly never thought there was going to be an eight-story building for $53 million as the solution,” Townsend said Tuesday. “The process just didn’t work. It was a fluke that Fern and I were put on the committee. Everyone else is a stakeholder.”

Fern McClaugherty, an Edinburg resident and OWL member, was appointed the committee by Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores. She and Townsend told commissioners recently that they didn’t support the images released by the architectural firm, as they didn’t represent anything the committee had asked for.

“This is way too big and expensive for Hidalgo County,” McClaugherty said. “We’re in trouble.”

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia on Tuesday said the images released were concepts developed by the architects. Due to a partnership with the City ofEdinburg, county officials were invited to a city meeting to discuss the progress of the project as well as financing options. While it was a public meeting, Garcia said he had been invited by the city to attend and wasn’t aware that the committee members wouldn’t be invited to attend.

“We’ve never approved a draft,” Garcia said Tuesday. “We’re a long ways from approval.”

The judge said the process isn’t complete and the draft generated by ERO will undergo a number of changes throughout the development.

“Everyone is giving ideas as to what could be done,” he said. “We’re just beginning. It’s like building a house.”
ERO Architects CEO Eli Ochoa was unavailable for comment on this story.

Architects estimate that the eight-story building in the draft could cost approximately $53 million. The current courthouse, which cannot be torn down due to Texas Historical Commission mandates, could cost another $10 million to bring up to code, officials said in November. A $4 million grant will help the county in its renovation process.

Garcia said the county wants to construct approximately 20 courtrooms that will take the county to the end of the century. Currently, several courts are scattered across Edinburg as the county has outgrown the courthouse, which was built to have two district courts and one court-at-law office. Today, Hidalgo County has 10 district courts and eight court-at-law rooms along with master, juvenile and probate courts.

Meanwhile, the aging courthouse suffers during heavy rainfall with leaks despite years of repair.

“The need is clearly there,” he said. “We want to construct a structure that we can easily add on without incurring the heavy construction expense.”

To help fund the project, Garcia said the county is considering adopting a tax increment financing zone as one of its methods of funding. With the City of Edinburg, the county hopes to develop a zone several blocks around the courthouse square to help pay off the debt of the construction.

Townsend said she has a number of problems with the draft, specifically its lack of cultural relevance to Hidalgo County, which the committee said it wanted.

Townsend and McClaugherty aren’t alone in being upset by the draft images. Edinburg resident Mark Peña told the Rio Grande Guardian the draft looked like Lego blocks. Townsend agreed.

“It’s like somebody was at their computer playing with ideas and thought, ‘We have to show them something, so let’s give them this,’” Townsend said.

With those reactions, Townsend said committee members had been emailed by planning team members to assure them the drafts were only preliminary.

“I simply don’t buy that,” she said. “I think it’s all just a bunch of game playing.”

For McClaugherty, the release of the drafts with little input from the committee almost makes their time all for naught.

“We’re trying to figure out where they pulled this out of,” she said. “Where did you decide this is what the building would look like? That wasn’t discussed at any meeting I went to.”

The women said they met with planners to discuss their concerns and offer their input and suggestions, which committee members are encouraged to do as part of their monthly homework, but Townsend believes the comments weren’t utilized.

“I don’t think it was even considered,” she said.

Last month’s informal meeting between Edinburg and the county, Garcia stressed, was only to discuss what could be done. Since that meeting, there haven’t been any other discussions on the square, he added.

“I don’t know where they got the idea that this is over and we don’t need their input,” he said, adding that it could take another six months before commissioners approve a design. “This is just the beginning. We need to know what’s involved so we can make sure we get the right type of structure at the right price.”

The committee is set to meet again on Jan. 18 at the University of Texas-Pan American and while disheartened, Townsend said she was ready for the meeting. 

The OWLS also serve as committee members for the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1.

“It always is another education process with visions of the future, and I don’t feel frustrated,” Townsend said. “I always come back frustrated from the courthouse committee. What’s happening with the old courthouse? What about the annex? Do we still have people in the MediPlex building? I don’t know. There are so many things there isn’t a plan for that it’s frustrating.”

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