Plans for Miami courthouse expanded ‘for tourist purposes’ under fire

Architect says entrance should have been finished as a state-of-the-art tourist attraction for public visitors

An architectural review of the historic downtown Miami courthouse reopened Monday, after a long delay that has prompted accusations that the project’s real purpose is to condense two square blocks into a four-storey shopping center.

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The hotel, conference centre and restaurant complex for which the city’s historic downtown is building such buzz, is going up on the footprint of the iconic old Polk County court building in the city’s nightlife-heavy Brickell district.

But critics claim the project is being inflated in order to bring tourists into the city, which needs more holidaymakers and money in the coming years.

“I think the problem is that some council members think it’s all about tourism,” said Michael Pinto, one of Miami’s vocal preservationist activists.

Courtroom VI of the old Polk County courthouse will occupy an impressive atrium gallery located just below the courthouse’s massive ceiling and connecting it to its adjoining field office, which houses the Miami circuit judge and bench judges.

Before expanding the court building to add an atrium gallery, the building was at least 12 storeys tall, a height that does not sit well with city leaders who continue to insist it will be able to compete with Miami’s waterfront skyline and glittering Skyline tower.

“The atrium gallery can have a glass floor, and you can walk outside and see the fish tank and read the judge’s handbook,” said downtown area resident Maureen Malchin. “It’s such a special space and it’s that much more accessible to tourists.”

Residents and activists are calling for City Hall to re-evaluate all projects in the city, including transportation and waste management projects, in order to avoid a collapse in public interest and trust.

Jane Leiss, the senior architect at Miami-based Abramson Leiss who conducted the 10,000-hour inspection of the former courthouse, said there had been no choice but to delay work on the project, given the state of affairs.

“We work on a daily basis with municipalities and county governments where concerns are raised about the limitations of the limitations. In South Florida, everyone is feeling that pinch: the skyrocketing crime, the rising competition from developers, and the future ‘zoning movement’,” she said.

“The Polk County courthouse is not just historic but very, very important to our skyline. It’s a financial driver for the city of Miami. It would be hard to have one more project under construction at this moment in time. It’s really frustrating.”

Critics say that when the new courthouse opens in September, it will be much smaller than what was proposed by architects when the plan was first announced in 2008. One local group says it would “shrink Miami’s skyline by 80%”.

“We are now offering a platform for those people who feel that they have been mistreated and betrayed by this project,” said Malchin. “The city needs to step up.”

Miami council members have had the project for nearly 10 years and have been incensed that it has been kept under wraps. At least one city council member has accused a council officer of spreading “lies” about the fate of the old courthouse.

“I am not buying it,” said Bogdan Nazarian, a Miami council member. “When I get to a city council meeting and my fellow members are so attached to this debacle, my question is why? Why keep quiet? How does this become their new judge? They’re already on the bench.”

• The headline of this article was amended on 29 January 2019 to give the correct length of time the project was advertised and was currently under construction. It had previously been put at more than 11 years.

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