Miami-Dade County Courthouse at sunrise/photo by J. Albert Diaz Miami-Dade County Courthouse at sunrise/photo by J. Albert Diaz

The Miami-Dade County Commission will keep considering two potential sites for a new civil courthouse in downtown Miami, rejecting the county mayor’s assertion that an underused parking lot next to the Children’s Courthouse would be the best spot.

The unanimous commission vote, which left the door open to a proposal from a group associated with the high-speed train Brightline, was welcomed by members of the legal community.

“We are very thankful to Mayor [Carlos] Gimenez and the county commission for moving forward with plans for a new civil courthouse,” Miami-Dade Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto said in a statement. ”We look forward to working closely with the county’s professional staff to evaluate responses to the competitive process so that the dream of a functional civil courthouse for our community comes to fruition with the best design and financial model possible.”

Judges, lawyers and other stakeholders have pushed for years to replace the deteriorating building at 75 W. Flagler St. Those who work in the 90-year-old tower have dealt with mold, flooding, termites, fire safety issues and other problems, and judges don’t believe it has the space or technological capacity to meet 21st century needs.

Soto previously told the Daily Business Review that repairing the old building won’t work. “As valiantly as they’ve tried to patch this building up, it has too many things going on with it,” she said.

After voters rejected a $290 million courthouse bond issue in 2014, proponents of a new building started looking for alternative funding sources with an eye toward public-private partnerships.

The county brought on an architectural firm and a court planning agency to create a master plan with the needs of the next 20 years in mind. The plan recommended a 600,000-square-foot building in downtown Miami with at least 46 courtrooms.

Gimenez asked his administration to scale it back to 525,000 square feet to cut costs by about $87 million, but the commission rejected that idea earlier this month in favor of the original master plan.

Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez/Photo by Eleazar David Melendez Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez/Photo by Eleazar David Melendez

The mayor’s office then asked the commission to reject an unsolicited proposal submitted in January by New Flagler Courthouse Development Partners LLC, a group formed in part by Brightline parent Florida East Coast Industries LLC. The group proposed constructing the courthouse on county-owned land on Flagler Street next to the current building. The annual payment would be $26 million for 35 years, according to the county.

After the unsolicited bid came in, the county put out a request for qualifications from developers who would build on the parking lot next to the Children’s Courthouse at 155 NW 3rd St. Proposals are due April 2.

“Based on the county’s preliminary evaluation, the unsolicited proposal will be rejected while the county continues to pursue the selection of a prospective developer through the competitive process that is already underway,” the mayor wrote to the commission Feb. 8. “The Internal Services Department has continued to move the courthouse project forward. The current competitive process represents the most cost-effective and expeditious course of action.”

The mayor prefers the site next to the Children’s Courthouse because the county has already done environmental remediation and sees no other suitable uses for that spot, according to his memo.

The commission rejected the mayor’s recommendation after hearing from stakeholders, including Cuban American Bar Association President Jorge Piedra. He said a courthouse project on Flagler Street would be more lucrative from a public-private partnership standpoint and would help revitalize the west end of downtown.

“We emphasized to the commission that time is of the essence and that we strongly feel that all options should be left on the table, especially one that would put a courthouse on Flagler Street,” said Piedra, managing partner at Piedra & Associates in Coral Gables.

Others are less committed to one site or the other.

“What matters primarily to me is that we get one built and that we get one done as quickly as possible and that it fulfill the requirements of the master plan,” Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin said. “Both sites meet the basic criteria that I’m looking for, which is to be near the existing facility [and] to be near transit and thereby be accessible to the existing infrastructure of legal offices and services.”

Piedra said CABA wants to work with other voluntary bar associations to keep pushing for an expedient process. He said making Brightline’s bid public and asking for competing bids is faster than waiting for bidders to qualify and then prepare proposals.

“There is really no way to complete the process of selecting a project and contractor in 2018 under the request-for-proposal process, whereas the unsolicited bid, if the administration uses the fast-track process that Brightline is proposing, we could be selecting a contractor as early as this summer,” he said.

Brightline attorney Eugene Stearns of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson in Miami spoke at the meeting but was not available for an interview by deadline.

The commission directed the mayor to take bids from other developers for both sites and submit a report on April 10.

“I just think the people of Dade County need to have an adequate facility to resolve civil disputes, which we don’t have today,” Ruvin said. “The sooner, the better.”