Miami-Dade County

County commissioners faced a showdown vote on a new civil courthouse. They punted.

A proposal backed by Florida East Coast Industries would build a new civil courthouse next to the existing one at 73 W. Flagler St.
A proposal backed by Florida East Coast Industries would build a new civil courthouse next to the existing one at 73 W. Flagler St. New Flagler Courthouse Development Partners LLC

The fight over where to build a new civil courthouse in downtown Miami got no closer to resolution Tuesday, after commissioners, lawyers, judges and the county's mayor spent about three hours debating the question. Then the County Commission voted to delay a decision for at least a month.

"I'm frustrated because I come to this commission again and again," said Judge Jennifer Bailey, who has helped lead the campaign by judges, lawyers and court clerks to secure funding for a courthouse expected to cost close to $400 million to build.

"Every day this decision is delayed, there are more taxpayer dollars that are going into a courthouse that is too small, technologically inadequate, and it's making people sick," she said.

The meeting had the potential for a showdown. Bailey and other judges told lawyers to attend the meeting, billed as the day when commissioners would decide where to build the courthouse. On the agenda was a recommendation by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to reject an unsolicited proposal by Florida East Coast Industries to build a replacement courthouse on Flagler Street and turn the existing 1928 courthouse into a 220-room hotel next door.

courthouse rendering oct 2017
The proposed new civil courthouse next to the Children’s Courthouse at 155 NW Third St., Miami. The administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants the two facilities to share space in order to save money, but the County Commission has resisted that effort. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Gimenez argued that FECI, the developer behind the Brightline railway, should be forced to participate in the county's ongoing solicitation for courthouse proposals — a process that began in January. The mayor wants to build the courthouse a few blocks away from Flagler on a parking lot next to the Children's Courthouse on Northwest Third Street. That was the site in the original request for proposals, but the commission in February instructed the mayor to include the Flagler Street location in the bid documents, too.

With one exception, commissioners walked back from every opportunity to resolve the debate. A motion to build the courthouse on Flagler Street failed. A motion to build the courthouse next to the Children's Courthouse failed, too. A motion to keep both sites alive passed.

Commissioners did approve one potential setback for FECI. The board accepted an Gimenez recommendation to strip the 1928 courthouse from any potential development deal for a new courthouse. Instead, the county would sell or lease the historic tower in a separate transaction.

But the main vote kept the two conflicting paths to a new courthouse alive. Commissioners declined to reject the FECI proposal, which has remained confidential under state and county laws governing unsolicited offers for government projects. While it outlined a plan to build the courthouse on Flagler, accepting the proposal would have triggered a bidding process under the terms and timetable laid out by FECI.

The 13-member board voted to delay a decision on the FECI proposal until after the May 2 deadline for developers to submit courthouse proposals to the county's Internal Services Department.

"It seems like we're leaving here again and doing nothing," said Commissioner Joe Martinez.

Tuesday's vote leaves FECI with the option of shifting its proposal over to the county's bidding process. Or the company can roll the dice, skip the county process, and hope commissioners will vote to overrule the mayor, scrap the other developers' submissions and go with the FECI plan.

Jose Gonzalez, FECI's senior vice president for corporate development, said after the vote that the company wasn't interested in joining the county competition. "It's just too lengthy of a process," he said.

Gimenez said he thought the day's votes mostly spelled the end of the FECI proposal, given that most commissioners seemed inclined to support the county bidding process. He called the vote to keep both paths alive as a way for FECI to avoid losing its confidentiality protections immediately for the unsolicited bid.

"If they had rejected their proposal, the proposal becomes public knowledge," Gimenez said.

Should FECI drop out, that would theoretically leave both the Children's Courthouse spot and Flagler Street alive as potential courthouse sites. But Gimenez sees building on Flagler Street as "substantially" more expensive than it would be on Third Street, where a new courthouse could share a lobby and other facilities with the juvenile courthouse. He predicted commissioners would pick a site before the county requested formal proposals from developers.

Miami-Dade has yet to explain how it would pay for a new courthouse, four years after voters rejected a 2014 ballot measure to raise property taxes and fund a $390 million replacement.

Lawyers and court employees who addressed commissioners before the vote urged them to put the new courthouse on Flagler Street, citing the short walk to nearby law offices, restaurants and other amenities that have built up around the existing courthouse. On Tuesday FECI released a promotional booklet touting its plan and posing loaded questions next to renderings of a boxy courthouse the county proposed next to the juvenile facility three blocks away.

"Does this location allow development of 'a community landmark for its dignity and expression of the high ideals of justice,' " the FECI booklet asked, quoting from a goal in the county's master plan for the court system.

With the existing courthouse suffering from leaks, mold complaints and cramped, outdated courtrooms, legal advocates begged commissioners not to delay the process of building a replacement.

"You have to invest in justice," lawyer Marlon Hill said before the vote.

FECI representatives argued that the procurement schedule laid out in its unsolicited bid would allow the county to invite competing proposals to the FECI plan on a quicker timetable. While judges officially remained neutral, they opposed Gimenez's effort to reject the FECI proposal outright in favor of the county solicitation of courthouse proposals from all developers.

Chief Judge Bertila Soto, who was seated in the commission chambers at 9 a.m. and didn't leave until after the vote at 3 p.m., said the meeting yielded some progress but nothing definitive.

"It's a non-decision," she said. "Every time we come here, at least we feel we're closer. ... And we look forward to another day."