The Miami-Dade County Courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street has proudly served this community for 87 years. At the time it was built, there were seven judges in all of Dade County and the courthouse was the tallest skyscraper south of Baltimore and a source of pride for every citizen. But no longer.
Today, the once-proud historically significant building is crumbling under the wear and tear of a busy court system of 123 judges, of which 41 work in this courthouse. Recent inspections revealed significant structural corrosion in the support columns and foundation that, while safe, require emergency repairs in the millions. The plumbing and electrical have not been updated, and many of the air conditioners were installed in the 1950’s. It is difficult to even get parts when they break, resulting in expensive repairs and closed courtrooms. Water intrusion from the leaks throughout the building have caused significant issues with mold that have required that 4 and 1/2 floors be closed due to potential health issues. Dade taxpayers face over $60 million dollars in repairs, just to fix the building—not to bring it to 21st century standards.
Structural issues have long dogged the building. When construction reached the 10th floor it had to be halted as the lower structure was sinking unevenly into the ground. An engineer from Mexico City was called on to provide a new substructure design with pilings that allowed the upper floors to be completed. The skin of the building, stone connected to the steel frame, has from the beginning been the source of water intrusion, leading to continuing problems of leaking, mold, mildew and insect infestation.
The City of Miami abandoned use of the building nearly a half-century ago. In the 1950’s, the County constructed a separate Criminal Court complex and new jail facility on 12th Avenue, ending use of 73 West Flagler as a jail and criminal court. In the mid-1980’s Dade County completed new County government facilities and moved its offices and Commission Chambers out of the building.
Of course, as the County’s population continued to grow, so did the need for courtrooms and offices for the growing number of Circuit Court judges. That need was met over the decades by converting what were once offices in the 1926 building into courtrooms and judicial offices although the small floor areas filled with steel columns existing in the upper floors allowed only make shift courtrooms. As a result, in all of the upper floor courtrooms, columns sit in the middle of the rooms blocking views of the parties, attorneys, jurors and witnesses. Today, including the makeshift courtrooms, there are 23 courtrooms in the building, shared by 41 judges.
The building is in desperate condition. For the last twelve years, it has been surrounded by a chain link fence waiting for outside repairs to begin. In January of 2014, we learned that 132 of 144 lower floor columns are severely corroded, requiring immediate structural repairs that will cost $25 million simply to keep the building in use. The historic intrusion of water continues and has led to serious problems with interior structures, mold, and insect infestation. The electrical system is ancient and cannot support the operations of a modern judicial system. And then there is the plumbing system.
Only seven of the operating floors have public bathrooms. Frequently, one or more of those facilities are closed.
Over time, four and a half floors of the building have been shut down because of environmental and structural problems, requiring the relocation of court personnel and operations.
To save this historic building, we must immediately undertake the structural repairs necessary for the building to be safe. The building cannot be repaired while it is occupied by a busy metropolitan court system. We must reduce the burden that the traffic of a busy courthouse—a million people per year through the doors—and put the building to a new use better suited to its historic status and its honorable service. The historic parts of the building must be preserved – floors one through 6 – and the upper floors converted to a modern use after a complete renovation as similar buildings are redeveloped in cities all over the United States.
In November, voters will have a chance to speak: to save the Dade County Courthouse from the gradual destruction of the wear and tear that it was never built for by making emergency repairs, and reprogramming the building for a purpose in keeping with its grand history; and to build a new safe, healthy and green downtown civil courthouse that can operate at lower cost to the taxpayer and with greater efficiency.