Hidalgo County weighs possible skywalk for courthouse project

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County commissioners are debating whether to construct a skywalk to connect the new courthouse to another county-owned building across the street.

The adjacent building, 100 E. Cano, is located on the southeast side of the courthouse square and is currently home to commissioners court, the county judge’s office, the district attorney’s office and the 13th Court of Appeals, among other offices.

However, when the new courthouse opens, the appellate court will reportedly move into the new facility and the DA’s office will remain there and take over the entire building, with the exception of the chamber where commissioners meet.

“The DA’s office did us a favor for wanting to stay here cause if not, we would have to build another 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot floor over there, which would have cost us a lot of money,” County Judge Richard F. Cortez said during a meeting last week.

At that point, commissioners were debating whether to amend the contract between the county and HDR Architecture to include additional services to design the bridge at a cost of up to $265,000.

That price tag, however, does not include materials or construction.

“I want to see what it’s going to look like and what it’s going to cost,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu said.

HDR Architecture, which designed the new courthouse, estimated the skywalk could cost up to $5 million, depending on a few factors, including access points and whether it will be air conditioned.

The county, however, has not earmarked any money for that project, Budget Officer Sergio Cruz told commissioners.

“Right now we don’t have any funding programmed for the skywalk,” he said. “That would have to come from some additional issuance for construction, either this year or next year.”

Cortez said he was concerned about spending money for a project that might not come to fruition.

“Because if I’m going to design something and pay a quarter of a million dollars and we don’t have the money to do it, then why pay a quarter of a million dollars?” he asked rhetorically. “So I think we already need to be in a position to say that if it comes within the parameters, as to what we think it’s going to cost us, the budget office says, ‘Yes, we have the money to do it,’ then we need to design it.”

When asked for his opinion, Cruz said the county could explore cost-saving measures to drive the price down, such as having an open concept without air conditioning.

“And a lot of it depends on whether or not they have to come into the building or not,” said Jacobs Project Manager Oscar Garcia.

The skywalk could be accessed through inside 100 E. Cano or through “footing” outside the building, he said.

“So as part of the design process, we can have the designers provide multiple options,” he said. “You can have a very utilitarian option — option one — or one that’s (air) conditioned and so forth. So as you guys go through that process, you can have them produce various different options.”

Cantu noted that architecture services are usually broken down into four parts.

“And maybe at the first stage they can give us those prices, and then we can allow them to continue or not,” he suggested.

“Exactly,” Garcia replied. “You have exit ramps throughout the process.”

“I think that’s a great idea, but at some point in time we have to do kind of a master plan now because there’s too many loose ends,” Cortez said. “And I hate to do one thing at a time. To me, I kinda always like to see a trigger point.”

If commissioners decide to build the skywalk, Garcia estimated construction would begin once the new courthouse is complete. That way it could run concurrently with Phase II, he said, which involves the demolition of the old courthouse, surface parking and green space.

“Our biggest concern, more than anything else, was being able to (have) some concurrency with the existing project,” Garcia said. “Right now we’re about to lay some grade-level concrete down, and so if you wanted to move forward with this, there would be some structural components that need to be at the courthouse. We would rather do that now, than have to break concrete and go back into it…”

“Let’s authorize the whole dollar amount … but let’s look at it in stages before we proceed,” Cortez said.

And with that, commissioners voted to approve the item and further examine the issue.