Push begins for new Miami-Dade County Courthouse

Voters could be asked to pay higher property taxes to build a new Miami-Dade County Courthouse, because the existing one is considered too small and in disrepair.

08/16/2014 12:00 AM

08/16/2014 4:53 PM

The architectural grande dame of downtown Miami — the pillared tower at 73 W. Flagler St., that for nearly 90 years has served as the city’s civic heart — has a roof that leaks, a façade that peels and a basement that floods so often that bottom shelves are left empty so legal files stay dry.

Its top floor, the one with a view of the turkey vultures that perch outside in the winter, has sat vacant for years because of the constant water intrusion. Just below it, floor 24 is used solely for storage, its walls stripped of paint because of concerns over poor air quality.

The creaks and cracks have become more difficult and expensive to repair over the years, while foot traffic has continued to grow at the historic Dade County Courthouse, which was built in 1925 and has more than 192,000 pending cases on its docket.

Its occupants say the time has come for a new home.

Bertila Soto, chief judge of Florida’s 11th judicial circuit, has the support of well-connected attorneys — and the ear of Miami-Dade politicians — to push for the construction of a new civil courthouse downtown. Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Harvey Ruvin, the elected clerk of the courts, endorse the idea.

County residents would have to foot the bill: a higher property tax to fund perhaps $500 million in government debt for the project, according to preliminary estimates. A referendum could go before voters early as November, if county commissioners sign off on a ballot question next month.

“This is not going to be a Taj Mahal,” Soto said. “We want to be as fiscally conservative with a building that will meet the needs of the 21st century.”

In Broward, a $328 million courthouse has been under construction for two years, mostly paid for by a half-cent sales tax that county commissioners diverted from other uses to fund the new facility.

Gimenez’s administration has until Wednesday to issue a report on court construction needs and how to fund them. For the referendum to be part of the Nov. 4 general election, commissioners would have to OK a ballot question by Sept. 3.

That would be far too rushed for some board members, who say a courthouse is necessary but would like more time to digest a needs assessment and financing plan — especially given that the county has known for years that the existing building is inadequate.

Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, chairman of the board’s infrastructure committee, said the latest campaign “is serving the interests of a small group of attorneys who would love a state-of-the-art courthouse downtown paid for by taxpayers of Dade County.”

“It’s not thought out: What it looks like, what size, what it has in it — all those are discussions that need to be had,” he said.

With more time, the county could pursue state funding to bring down the local cost, Zapata added. “I don’t see why we need to impose this on the people of Miami-Dade County exclusively just because the timing is convenient.”

Voters have shown a willingness over the past two years to raise taxes for long-term capital programs for public schools and the Jackson Health System. The courthouse need is critical, proponents argue, even if specifics haven’t been ironed out.

“The courthouse that we have is close to 100 years old,” Gimenez said. “It’s completely outdated.”

Gimenez said he favors designing a new courthouse from scratch, instead of retrofitting an office building. Acquiring privately owned land downtown appears too expensive, so it’s more likely a new facility would go on existing county property.

One idea is to demolish county offices at 140 W. Flagler St.. and rebuild. Another is to develop a sliver of Miami-Dade property wedged between the new Children’s Courthouse that has yet to open on Northwest Third Street, and the Metrorail tracks just west of First Avenue.

A third possibility: to enter into a public-private partnership with All Aboard Florida, the company planning a passenger train line from Miami to Orlando, to include a courthouse tower as part of its planned three-million-square-foot station complex adjacent to County Hall.

All Aboard’s plans, which commissioners approved in a zoning hearing last month, don’t include a courthouse. But the company said it is in talks with the county over the idea.

What would become of the existing building is also unclear. It’s historic, so it could not be razed. The county could use it for office space. Or it could sell or lease it to a boutique hotel operator, for example — one with pockets deep enough to pay for extensive renovations.

The storied courthouse, originally home to county offices, and both civil and criminal courts, was built out of terracotta and steel — for about $4 million — from 1925 to 1928 on the site of a two-story courthouse from 1904.

For decades, the 360-foot landmark was known as the tallest edifice south of Baltimore. Al Capone beat a perjury rap there in 1930. In 1989, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the years, it also served as Miami City Hall and as a jail that inmates’ families could visit only on Sundays — giving the building a Spanish nickname, Cielito Lindo, after the popular Mexican song in which a beau can see his beloved only once a week. Rudimentary graffiti painted in red on a stripped 24th-floor column reads “JAIL BIRD.”

The last time inspectors “recertified” the building — usually done every 40 years — was in 1976, according to city of Miami records. At the time, the city revoked the court’s certificate of occupancy pending a structural evaluation. That review was eventually conducted in 1988, according to the county, which says a new recertification is starting to get under way.

Much work has been done since 1976. The façade was sealed and most floors were gutted and remodeled — and had their window air-conditioning units removed — between the late 1980s and mid-1990s. About 15 years ago, a joint effort involving lawyers, private citizens, the state and the county funded the restoration of the building’s lobby, with its intricate tile and open atrium.

Three projects are under way right now, including a $35 million façade restoration. A fourth planned project would redo the third floor, which until recently housed the court’s probate division.

But none of the improvements would stave off the need for a new building. The court system long outgrew the facility; it has 21 functioning courtrooms — some of them deemed substandard because columns in the middle obstruct the view — for 41 judges.

A Miami-Dade courts master plan completed in 2008 recommended that design for a new courthouse begin in five to six years. The plan made a similar — and more urgent — appeal for the overcrowded Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, which dates to 1960 and houses criminal courts.

“The Dade County Courthouse should be replaced,” the plan says. “All the other options are stopgap at best and only intended to buy time to the best solution.”

At the time, master planners estimated that a new, 500,000-square-foot courthouse with parking for 2,000 vehicles built on county-owned land could cost about $455 million if built in six to 10 years.

Another county study, from 1986, had already concluded the building couldn’t meet court needs through 2005. Judges clamored for construction of a new facility, but the government said it didn’t have the money.

This year, a structural engineering firm found that while there is “no immediate concern” that the building would collapse, the courthouse should be evacuated when weather forecasters issue a hurricane warning.

While county staffers work on their latest report, a group of lawyers organized by County Hall regulars Gene Stearns and Jorge Luis Lopez have for months been drumming up support in the legal community for what could become a sprint of a political campaign.

“We understand how difficult it is for individuals who deal with the court system and the administration of justice when you have facilities that are aging,” Lopez said. “We have to, together, convince folks that this is a priority.”

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