Brightline developer still in the running to build new Miami-Dade courthouse

County mayor wants the unsolicited bid thrown out

Miami-Dade County’s courthouse and Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Miami-Dade County’s courthouse and Mayor Carlos Gimenez

An unsolicited proposal by the developer of the Brightline express train to build a new downtown Miami courthouse is still hanging on, in spite of a recommendation by Miami-Dade County’s mayor to kill it.

After four hours of discussion, the Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously voted on Tuesday to hold onto New Flagler Courthouse Development Partners’ proposal to build a new courthouse just west of the 90-year-old courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street – delaying a decision until after a separate request for qualification (RFP) process ends on May 2.

In exchange for constructing and maintaining a new courthouse, New Flagler, which includes Brightline operator Florida East Coast Industries, wants $26 million a year for the next 35 years. In addition to building a new courthouse, the bid also envisions converting the current courthouse, which was built in 1928, into a 220-room hotel. Further details on the plans are obscured by the county’s cone of silence ordinance.

The developer will have some competition, though. The county commission also voted to continue with an RFQ process to find a developer that only wants to build a new 600,000 square foot courthouse on a site just east of the Children’s Courthouse at 155 Northwest Third Street or west of the current courthouse. At the same time, the county commission instructed Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to seek bids from developers interested in buying the old courthouse for redevelopment.

“We just went around in a circle,” said Jose Gonzalez, senior vice president of FECI.

Mayor Gimenez has been trying to kill New Flagler’s proposal since February. The reason: the county’s real estate consultants are confident they can get a better price for the old county courthouse if they sell it outright, as opposed to including it in a package deal. As such, the county issued an RFQ at the end of January for a developer interested in building a new courthouse. New Flagler submitted its unsolicited proposal, at the county’s invitation, on Jan. 11. Although the developer paid the county $154,000 to have its bid considered, Gimenez said it should now go through the RFQ process.

Gimenez did bend on his stance on where the new courthouse should be constructed. In February, Gimenez insisted that it would be more economical to build it by the Children’s Courthouse – like New Flagler’s proposal.

The concept of building a new courthouse next to the old one is also backed by several local attorney associations as well as the city of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.

Gimenez is still sure that constructing a courthouse on the 40,000-square foot site beside the Children’s Courthouse will be cheaper than building it on the narrow 26,000-square foot sliver next to the 73 West Flagler Courthouse. However, Gimenez said he wants more time to provide a detailed analysis on the costs for building on both sites. “To chose one site before the economics [are analyzed] would be premature,” he said. “I don’t want to choose one site [right now]. I want to let both sites go forward.”

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Eugene Stearns, an attorney and lobbyist representing New Flagler, insisted that the Children’s Courthouse site lacked the infrastructure needed for a new courthouse. “There are no streets around it to get to it and there’s no parking,” he said.

Commissioner Sally Heyman tried to get the county to focus the bid entirely on the site west of the current courthouse. It failed 4 to 7.

Dozens of lawyers, judges, and court reporters lined up to urge immediate action to replace the current county courthouse. The Flagler Street courthouse, they said, was infested with mold, lacked restrooms, had insufficient emergency exits, and shoddy electrical wiring.

But Commissioner Javier Souto questioned why the county was trying to build a new courthouse at all. He pointed out that 64 percent of voters rejected a referendum to issue $390 million worth of bonds to construct a new courthouse back in 2014.

“It’s clear to me that this is going against the will of the people,” said Souto, who crumpled a copy of the courthouse referendum results and threw it behind the dais.

Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo pointed out that the county wasn’t issuing a bond to borrow money. Instead, the county was seeking a private-public partnership to build the new courthouse.

Still, Gimenez said the expense of building a courthouse, as mandated by the state constitution, will ultimately come out of the county’s coffers. The mayor estimated it may cost the county anywhere from $20 million to $30 million a year to rent a new courthouse. “That’s a range,” he said. “It may be more now. We won’t know until the process is set.”

“And where is that money going to come from?” Souto later asked. “The clouds? Santa Clause?”