After voters rejected a grander plan, Miami-Dade this week unveiled a scaled-back vision for a new civil courthouse downtown, with smaller courtrooms, fewer bathrooms and no gym.
What once was a $390 million proposal for higher taxes to pay for the replacement for Miami-Dade’s aging courthouse on Flagler Street now has a budget of $257 million. The previous construction budget was about $360 million, since the original $390 million plan included fixes to the existing 1928 civil courthouse. With the new price tag, costs are down nearly 30 percent.
Most of the saved money comes from significant trims to the design itself. Instead of 26 floors, it would have 18. Instead of 600,000 square feet inside, it would have 455,000. And instead of its own entrance, the building would rise next to the existing Children’s Courthouse on Northwest Third Street, and share a front lobby.
I want to see this move along in my lifetime, let alone within some of our term limits.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman
Other cuts are more subtle. With jury trials relatively rare, the proposed courthouse slices the number of courtrooms with jury boxes. Judges also would receive smaller offices and use smaller courtrooms. Male and female jurors would share a bathroom, instead of the original plan for men’s and women’s rooms in the jury deliberation areas.
And a planned fitness center was scrapped, too, according to Tara Smith, the head of the county’s Internal Services Department and a spokesman for Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“There are a number of other efficiencies,” Smith told a County Commission panel Wednesday, pointing to the ability to share a cafeteria with the Children’s Courthouse, shrinking file-storage space thanks to digitization and planning for a much smaller law library.
Building perks became a flashpoint in the long-running courthouse debate when a member of a county task force crafting plans for a new building broke away from the committee and urged commissioners to demand a leaner budget. Architect Maria Luisa Castellanos urged smaller courtrooms and fewer jury boxes in her “minority” report to the county last year, while the majority of the panel advocated for a modern facility anticipating growth in Florida’s most populous county.
Chief Judge Bertila Soto told commissioners Wednesday that the judiciary helped develop some of the proposed reductions, and accepted the need for a less expensive plan. But she warned against settling on a budget that produces a courthouse that’s too small for a county that will need more judges in the future.
“This courthouse could be obsolete before it’s built,” she said. “You really need to think about that.”
The cost-saving plan is the latest effort to advance a new courthouse, a campaign led by Miami-Dade judges. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2014 ballot item authorizing Miami-Dade to borrow $390 million on the bond market for what was then a courthouse without architectural renderings, a location or even a line-item budget.
With the existing courthouse — so old it once held a trial for Al Capone — in disrepair then and suffering from mold issues, advocates of the bond issue characterized the situation as a crisis needing an emergency fix. Three years later, Miami-Dade says the leaks behind the mold have been fixed but agree the 1928 building is too cramped to house the county’s civil judicial system.
Even with a leaner budget, Miami-Dade does not yet have a plan to pay for a replacement structure. Smith said selling the existing building probably won’t raise enough money for a new one, and Miami-Dade has yet to identify a new revenue stream capable of substituting for the higher property taxes that would have funded the 2014 bond sale.
Miami-Dade wants a private developer to finance the construction bill, then manage the facility under a long-term agreement with the county. Known as a “private-public partnership,” it allows a government to avoid borrowing money for a large capital project. The private firm bankrolling construction earns its profit over decades of government payments, while eating unforeseen expenses during the building process.
Commissioners urged Smith to find a way to advance the project.
“I want to see this move along in my lifetime,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, “let alone within some of our term limits.”