The David W. Dyer Courthouse, built in the Spanish colonial-revival style in downtown Miami in 1933, has seen better days.
Vacant since 2008, the nearly 180,000-square-foot building became center stage Monday for Republican members of Congress, who scolded the General Services Administration for wasting millions of dollars in taxpayer money by failing to find a tenant or sell the property for redevelopment.
The notoriously moldy building, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places, has been empty since a $163 million courthouse named after the late judge Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. was built nearby on North Miami Avenue. The new glass structure, shaped like a ship with a light-filled atrium, experienced cost overruns of tens of millions of dollars along with a delayed opening because of electrical and other interior problems.
Three lawmakers took turns chiding a senior GSA official in the historic Dyer building’s central courtroom — once used for the trials of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and other infamous defendants — to dramatize how the federal agency has squandered opportunities to revitalize thousands of vacant or underused government buildings.
“This is a perfect example of how things should not be done,” said Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee.
“Why is a building like this sitting vacant? ... It’s a bad use of taxpayer dollars.”
“This is a repeated pattern from sea to shining sea,” said John L. Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “This is typical of a multibillion-dollar fiasco across the country.”
Their colleague, Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, compared the Dyer Courthouse to the famous Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, saying repeatedly he was “speechless” that GSA officials had done nothing to breathe life back into it.
“Frankly, there’s no excuse for it,” Diaz-Balart said.
In chorus, the lawmakers said there are some 14,000 federal properties like the Dyer Courthouse that are empty or not fully used. Of that total, GSA officials said the agency has begun leasing or selling off 124 buildings now under its control.
As they spotlighted the waste of taxpayer dollars, they also portrayed the GSA as an agency under siege for questionable spending on bonuses and lavish staff conferences in Las Vegas and other resorts.
John Smith, the regional commissioner for GSA’s public buildings service in the Southeast, said the agency held on to the Dyer building for several years because it believed the courthouse could be used by other federal employees. But plans for U.S. bankruptcy judges, their staff and others to move into the building never materialized.
Smith also cited other daunting challenges, including the structure’s “high cost of renovation,” estimated to be $60 million.
Last week, he said, the agency asked developers and business people for ideas for the Dyer Courthouse, saying it “intends to reposition this property in the near future.”
Mica, the Florida Republican, said he found it suspicious that the agency sought suggestions from the business community just days before the congressional panel planned to meet in the Dyer Courthouse Monday.
He said lawmakers experienced the same reaction from the agency when they held previous hearings on three vacant federal buildings in the nation’s capital.
“If we have to have a hearing at every empty building in the country in order to get GSA to stop wasting money, we will do so,” Mica said.