It took an extended procurement fight, a standoff with the mayor, lobbying from the legal industry and marathon public meetings, but Miami-Dade County on Tuesday decided where to build a new downtown civil courthouse.
The choice: next to the existing one, on Flagler Street.
County commissioners unanimously endorsed the proposal by Commissioner Sally Heyman to instruct developers to tailor the bids to county land next to the existing 1928 courthouse, a building old enough that it once housed a trial for Al Capone. Judges and lawyers favored the Flagler location over county land a few blocks away next to the existing Children’s Courthouse. Mayor Carlos Gimenez wanted the site by the Children’s Courthouse in order to save money through shared facilities and a wider footprint allowing for fewer stories.
With a unanimous commission siding with Heyman for a site between Northwest First Street and West Flagler Street, the courthouse process moves back into the process of soliciting developers for the project.
Brightline’s parent company has already submitted a plan to build a courthouse on the new Flagler site, which is currently occupied by parking lots and green space between the existing courthouse and the downtown library plaza. Brightline faces competition from other developers interested in building and running the courthouse in exchange for a stream of yearly payments from Miami-Dade expected to approach $30 million. The county plans to offset the expense by selling the existing courthouse as a potential hotel or other for-profit use.
Commissioners earlier this year ordered county administrators to cancel an ongoing solicitation of bids for the courthouse project in order to allow Brightline to compete after Gimenez rejected that company’s unsolicited proposal for the Flagler site. A new request for proposals is expected to be issued next month, with a developer to be selected in 2020.
The wrangling followed years of stalled efforts after voters in 2014 rejected a ballot item to raise property taxes to pay for a new courthouse. Judges warn the building suffers from so many leaks, mold issues and other failings that it’s no longer a safe place to work. The county says it is addressing issues as they arise.
The judges who have been leading the campaign to advance the courthouse construction described the vote as a milestone in a drawn-out process.
“Everybody knows what they’re competing on now,” said Judge Jennifer Bailey in the lobby outside the commission chambers. Added Chief Judge Bertila Soto: “We finally got everyone to agree on a courthouse site. ... I think we hit a home run.”