FORT LAUDERDALE — The new federal courthouse scheduled to be built by 2026 is intended to be the home of many things: A dozen courtrooms, chambers for 17 judges, and workspaces for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services and U.S. Marshals Service.
And, quipped Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, “it’s waterfront property.”
On a sunny but windswept Wednesday, a Who’s Who of South Florida’s legal community and public sector officials gathered at 1080 SE Third Ave., south of the New River, to help break ground on a long-sought courthouse that will serve as a new center of federal justice for the Fort Lauderdale division of the Southern District of Florida.
It will replace the outmoded, leaky, decades-old courthouse at 299 E. Broward Blvd., which is slightly north of the New River. Technically, the new 255,000-square-foot high-rise does qualify as waterfront property. It will rise just south of the less formidable Tarpon River, a location which will require a 5-foot seawall to be built to keep any rising waters from encroaching on the property.
All things considered, it didn’t take much to advance the conversation last week about how the new courthouse project might trigger a wave of economic and urban development to complement the city’s building boom to the north, particularly in Flagler Village.
“You’re going to see a lot of active participation in this neighborhood, and you are going to start to see adjacent properties being redeveloped,” Trantalis said in an interview. “Now the land is more valuable. and more and more people are going to improve the land. We’re building infrastructure. We’re anticipating growth. And this is all part of what we hope to see in the future.”
Steve Hudson, president and CEO of Hudson Capital Group, which assembled several parcels and sold the site to the government, sees the south of the river as “a natural progression of development” from the north.
“You are seeing more towers being approved south of the river,” he said. “I think the federal courthouse helps that. You might not see a 30-story office tower go up. You may see a specialty office for those who will find a benefit from being in the proximity of that legal campus.”
It helps that the federal project is fueled by $245 million in federal money and steered by the U.S. General Services Administration at a time when inflation has been a nemesis for private developers who are seeking financing for their own projects. Some private projects are being delayed as lenders have become more selective about granting construction loans. The costs of construction — including items such as insurance, labor and materials — are still on the rise.
As it happened, local government officials had to journey to Washington, D.C, last year to request an extra $55 million to supplement the $190 million Congress appropriated for the courthouse project in 2018. For her efforts, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, received accolades at the groundbreaking.
Despite the tighter money, planning for south-of-the-river projects has been moving forward.
“I think south of the river is going to look completely different in five years,” said Fort Lauderdale land-use lawyer Stephanie Toothaker, who represents a number of developers with projects in varying stages. Born at what is now Broward Health, her offices are slightly south of the river just to the west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.
“South of the river has not gotten the attention that it deserves,” she added. “If you compare Fort Lauderdale to other major cities, on the south of the river you have the airport and seaport and the hospital and you have the court district on top of that.”
A sampling of projects now under construction or in the advanced planning stages include:
- One River: A 34-story luxury apartment tower being built by OKO Group and Cain international, the London-based real estate investment firm. Located at 629 SE Fifth Ave., the project includes 251 apartments, 2,600 square feet of ground level retail space, and a 337-space parking garage. Completion is scheduled for September 2024. Led by Russian developer Vladislav Doronin, OKO has several luxury high-rise projects in Miami and New York.
- Sixth & Rio: A luxury boutique high-rise at 501 SE Sixth Ave. by OceanLand Investments. The project, which was originally intended to be a high-end apartment complex, will have 100 units ranging in price from the $900,000s to more than $2 million. The developer has broken ground and is close to starting construction.
- Raintree Riverwalk Residences: The twin-tower project by developer Cymbal Development is close to breaking ground at 408 SW Fourth St. and 403 SW Third Ave. Overall, it would house 677 residential units and 1,075 parking spaces.
- A 47-story, 563-foot tower by Dependable Equities of Brooklyn, N.Y., that won city commission approval earlier this year. The tower would be located at 633 SE Third Ave., not far from the Broward courthouse and School District headquarters. There would be 830 apartments ranging from 400 square feet to 1,500 square feet, 949 parking spaces, and 12,800 square feet of commercial space.
- A 30-story apartment tower by The Related Group at 409 SE Eighth St. The project would have 328 residential units.
The architect of record on the new federal is Hammel, Green and Abrahamson (HGA), which originated in Minnesota; the design-build contractor is Brasfield & Gorrie of Birmingham; the bridging architect team is Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM); and the construction manager is APSI Construction Management of Irvine, Calif.
Professional services enclave
Fancy residences aside, many observers believe that most commercial development will be an outgrowth of the legal industry that’s occupied the surrounding state courthouse neighborhood for years.
“The developments you might see in the future are going to be related to lawyers and businesses that want to be close to and around those government agencies,” said Alan Hooper, founder and president of Hooper Construction and co-founder of Urban Street Development, which is redeveloping the FATVillage area of Flagler Village. “I think it’s more of a catalyst from that direction.”
Tim Petrillo, co-founder of The Restaurant People, noted his company’s Tarpon River Brewing at 280 SW Sixth St. did well after its opening.
“We have a brewery on that side, which has a lot of impacts from the county courthouse,” he said. “We opened there four years ago, and Alan and I were one of the first to deliver a multi-family project on that side of the river. We were pleasantly surprised with how fast that filled up.”
Jean Francois Roy, the Canadian developer whose OceanLand Investments is building Sixth & Rio, sees the federal courthouse as a good reason to expand his sights toward the south.
“It’s a great idea to put the court there,” he said. “You’re closer to the airport and closer to everything. It’s a great location to do it. We are shopping for land all around there now for more projects.”.
Lawyers who have toiled in the county and circuit courts for years and whose firms are based in the neighborhood are glad to see the federal courthouse coming south, if for no other reason than they will be able to walk to court as opposed to fighting traffic to cross the New River to reach the existing federal courthouse on Broward Boulevard.
“You could throw a tennis ball from my office to the site where this federal courthouse is,” said Scott Schlesinger, a founding attorney of Schlesinger Law Offices P.A. on Davie Boulevard, a block or so south of the new federal courthouse site. “I was really gob-smacked when I finally figured out how close that building is to me.”
The 70-year-old firm, founded by the late renowned civil litigator Sheldon Schlesinger, specializes in product liability, medical malpractice, personal injury and wrongful death. It has represented clients against the tobacco, auto and chemical industries and most of its cases are in state court.
Scott Schlesinger recalls struggling against rush-hour traffic to get one of his legal teams across the New River to a federal court case on time. He is intrigued that the new federal courthouse will be so close to his building, itself a neighborhood landmark that sports a cupola 80 feet above street level and is sometimes mistaken for a public building.
He said he just finished clearing 2 acres of recently purchased land to the south of the law firm that now looks like a serene city park. For his brother, Gregg, a long-time lawyer and general contractor, Schlesinger said he built a sand trap and a putting green. .
“I’m very excited to have it,” Schlesinger said of the new federal courthouse. “I hope it helps elevate the neighborhood. In every way it’s got to be good.”