County Approves Courthouse Tower Plan

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — County commissioners recently approved a revised plan to replace the 50-plus-year-old Broward County courthouse with a 17-story, 675,000-square-foot tower that is expected to cost $270 million.

Circulation and access control in the existing courthouse, which was built in 1960 and expanded in the 1990s with the addition of two new wings, do not meet current standards for safety and security. The courthouse houses civil, criminal, juvenile, county and circuit courts, and the offices of the court clerk and court-related programs.

The building, which incorporates structural components of the original 1926 county courthouse that stood on the same site, has several other long-standing issues including plumbing, electrical, HVAC and elevator failures. Major flooding and chronic mold problems led employees to file a lawsuit over health concerns.

The revised plan, based on a $510 million, 893,000-square-foot courthouse proposal rejected by voters in 2006, was developed by a 15-member county task force. The plan calls for utilization of portions of the existing facility but reduces the project’s total square footage, cuts the number of new courtrooms and downsizes workspaces.

The task force plan also recommends increasing courtroom sharing to delay construction of a new satellite courthouse and postponing construction of a proposed new jail to help fund the new courthouse. The revised plan would also eliminate a 3,000-space parking lot included in the original project in favor of creating a basement–level garage with about 600 spaces.

The 15-member task force of judges, lawyers and elected officials was created last year to find a solution to the aging courthouse after a burst pipe damaged thousands of court files, downed more than 4,000 phone lines and caused a 10-day closure.

The task force recommended that the proposed tower be built on the parking lot next to the current courthouse, with construction beginning in 2011 and taking two years to finish.

The central portion on the existing courthouse and the building’s old west wing, which currently house the main public lobby, civil and family courts, clerk of court, courtroom administration and most of the state attorney’s office, would be demolished. The building’s newer east and north wings, which house the criminal courts and public defender’s office, would remain intact.

The problems with the existing courthouse are numerous and include a layout that mixes judges, employees, visitors and prisoners in the same area, often at the same time. Water, sewer and electrical systems that date back to the 1950s are problematic, and the building will need a new air-conditioning system within the next year or two, officials say.

Other problems include malfunctioning elevators, an overloaded electrical system and weak points between windows and walls that could fail in a hurricane.

“A strong Class 3 (storm) could inflict some serious damage,” says Pete Corwin, assistant to the county administrator.

Spillis Candela and Partners Inc., of Miami, is designing the new courthouse under a fast-track process to take advantage of the soft construction market, Corwin says.

Preliminary designs for the new courthouse include courtrooms, clerks’ offices and state attorney offices. The proposed tower would allow room for growth with a shelled-out floor that could accommodate additional offices and courtrooms.

The task force suggested funds for the project come from $60 million already set aside for new courts and another $60 million proposed for a new jail. A new court fee, approved this year, would raise another $60 million, and the project could qualify for stimulus funds.

Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, who chaired the task force, says she’s pleased with the results.

“I’m happy with the amount of work that people put in, their dedication to finding solutions, and I’m most pleased because they reached consensus,” Lieberman says.

The taskforce’s decision was the most cost-effective solution, she says.

“There’s no one in Broward County that could look at that courthouse and say it’s functional,” she says.