Miami-Dade County

Builders pursuing Miami-Dade courthouse project

A rendering by the HOK architectural firm of what a new civil courthouse could look like rising next to the existing Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse.
A rendering by the HOK architectural firm of what a new civil courthouse could look like rising next to the existing Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse.

Miami-Dade’s failed effort to raise taxes for a new courthouse hasn’t stopped the private sector from pursuing the lucrative project.

All Aboard Florida, developer of a train-depot and commercial complex downtown, had extensive talks with county officials in the spring and summer of 2014 about putting the courthouse on its property, and the discussions continued last month. The company has also talked about building the courthouse on county-owned land next to the new Miami-Dade Children’s courthouse.

Meanwhile, a county commissioner is proposing legislation to clear the way for a privately financed complex next to Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse near the Jackson medical campus, an option that has attracted interest by one of the county’s top contractors, Munilla Construction Management.

Each of the proposals rely on Miami-Dade resolving one vexing question: how to fund an estimated $365 million construction project without new property taxes. But with pressure from judges to find the money — and the failed tax referendum creating a sense of urgency for a problem years in the making — talks are under way to find someone to build the new courthouse.

“Gentlemen, the attachment below contains the latest drawings we have from HOK,” Leland Salomon, a top facilities official for Miami-Dade, wrote in a Dec. 10 email to All Aboard executives. HOK refers to the St. Louis architect behind the Children’s Courthouse; Miami-Dade paid it to rough out a plan for a new civil courthouse on a parking lot on the same land. “Please keep this information confidential,” Salomon wrote to All Aboard. “I look forward to hearing from you soon. Lee.”

Internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald through a public-records request shed some light on the private talks under way in the lead-up to the courthouse referendum. That proposal would have increased the Miami-Dade property tax that backs voter-approved borrowing in order to fund about $390 million for the courthouse project, including $25 million in repairs on the existing, 1928 building.

The ballot initiative did not include a site or design for a new courthouse, and the records show county officials working throughout the year to craft a development plan.

“This is almost exactly the same process that would have happened if the referendum had passed,” said Judge Jennifer Bailey, an administrative judge in Miami-Dade helping lead the courthouse effort. “The added complication is the mayor has to identify the funding source.”

The HOK courthouse sketch is dated August 2014, and was created as part of a design contract with Miami-Dade. It shows a generic mid-rise tower close enough to the existing 14-story courthouse that it looks like a much taller adjoining wing.

An Aug. 11 email from a county facilities official lays out some details: 51 courtrooms (more than double the 21 in the existing courthouse), about 618,000 square feet in all. The judges’ chambers each would have about 670 square feet, and in an effort to save costs, Salomon noted in a July 25 email to All Aboard: “No private bathrooms in the chambers.”

Through a spokeswoman, All Aboard declined to comment. In May, an All Aboard executive sent county officials a breakdown of a potential courthouse deal. The company, part of Florida East Coast Industries, would sell Miami-Dade some land from its planned Miami Central commercial complex and train depot, and then build a $310 million courthouse on it.

In a later email to staff, Salomon said All Aboard proposed a a rent-to-own plan with Miami-Dade, where the county would eventually take possession of the courthouse facility that All Aboard would build.

In sending the HOK documents to All Aboard last month, Salomon said the plan is for All Aboard to use the specifications to present Miami-Dade with its own courthouse plan.

“We figured the only way to do this fairly was to send them the plans, and have them use that to get back to us with whatever they’re going to get back to us with,” said Salomon, the county’s deputy director of the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, which includes the facilities division. One option would be for All Aboard to serve as the developer for a civil courthouse next to the Children’s Courthouse, which sits just across the tracks from the Miami Central project.

Without a tax increase, Miami-Dade would need to find other dollars to replace the existing courthouse.

This summer, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county could fund at least part of the project with a new surcharge on speeding tickets. Miami-Dade could also redirect money from a $2.9 billion countywide borrowing plan voters approved in 2004, or raise property taxes for a set number of years to fund the construction without borrowing money (pledging property taxes to debt requires a countywide vote). Selling the existing courthouse, downtown’s premier historic building, also could be used to offset the project’s price tag.

County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata wants to move the civil courthouse north to share a campus with the county’s criminal courthouse. His favored site is a cluster of county-owned parking lots near the Miami River, next to the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, home of the criminal court.

Zapata has drafted legislation to solicit private financing plans for a massive construction effort that could create not only a new civil courthouse building, but also rehab or replace both the Gerstein building and county detention facilities. Zapata’s bill would instruct the Gimenez administration to hire financial consultants to manage a bidding process for a range of “public-private partnership” proposals to improve the county’s justice system. Known as “P3,” a public-private partnership is an umbrella term for when a company provides up-front financing for a government project that it also builds and operates. The arrangement would be similar to the rent-to-own mechanism All Aboard proposed.

Under the Zapata plan, the P3 developer could serve as landlord for the judicial and detention facilities, meaning it would maintain the buildings for a fee. While a P3 structure would free Miami-Dade from borrowing the money up front, it still would need to find the revenue to pay the for-profit developer.

Zapata said he held a December meeting with Munilla Construction Management on the company’s interest in wrapping the civil-courthouse project into the kind of large justice-system P3 project contemplated in his bill. The commissioner said the location makes sense for the civil court. It would move the legal activity associated with the current courthouse out of the more prosperous downtown area and move it north to the sector of Miami known as the Civic Center, which is dominated by the Jackson hospital system.

“It would be a big economic impact in that area,” Zapata said.