Pending construction of a new federal courthouse promises to provide not only an upgraded workplace for government employees – including judges’ chambers with ocean views – but also a new urban identity for a low-rise neighborhood just south of downtown Fort Lauderdale. The project also raises questions about the future of the existing federal courthouse and its valuable downtown location.
Scheduled to open in 2026, the new 10-story courthouse will rise on about 3.5 acres bordered by SE 11th St. and Third Avenue and populated by one- and two-story homes and businesses. The site on the south bank of a Tarpon River tributary is one mile directly south of the existing federal courthouse at 299 E Broward Blvd., which opened in 1969.
“It’s just totally outdated inside,” City Commissioner Steven Glassman says of the 53-year-old courthouse. “It’s not able to function in the way a federal courthouse needs to function in Fort Lauderdale. I don’t even think it’s particularly healthy. It has got a lot of issues in terms of water damage over the years, and just its age.”
But Glassman and others want to preserve the angular majesty of the courthouse’s concrete façade, designed by architect William “Bill” Morgan in the Brutalist style, a style shared by the monumental Broward County Main Library and its naturally lit central atrium. The tiered look of the library and the courthouse shows how structural design in Mayan and pre-Columbian cultures influenced Morgan.
The city government’s historic preservation board has discussed the possibility of designating the federal courthouse at 299 E Broward Blvd. as a historic property. But Glassman says city officials are holding off on such a designation until they learn what the U.S. General Services Administration plans to do with the property at the intersection of East Broward Boulevard and Third Avenue.
“That corner really is our public square. Rallies, protests, you name it, happened on that corner. It’s a very important spot downtown,” says Glassman, who also values the courthouse’s architectural style. “I actually do appreciate that Brutalism style of architecture. We don’t have much of that in Fort Lauderdale.”
“We appreciate the interest in the architectural and historic significance of the courthouse,” says Cathleen Rineer-Garber, a spokeswoman for the GSA. “At this point, GSA has not yet determined our future plans for the building.”
Congress approved $190 million of funding in 2018 for construction of a new 255,000-square-foot federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale to better meet the space and security needs of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The courthouse will have 12 courtrooms, 17 judges’ chambers, and space for the U.S. Court of Appeals, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Probation Office. Though miles from the beach, the 10-story courthouse will be tall enough to provide ocean views from judges’ chambers on the east side of the top floor.
A long search for a site in Fort Lauderdale to build a new federal courthouse ended in December 2020 when the U.S. government paid $13.6 million for a cluster of properties in the 3rd Avenue corridor, including 1080 SE Third Ave. and 315 SE 11th St.
Fitting the design of the new federal courthouse into the low-rise neighborhood at SE Third and 11th is a challenge that led architectural firm SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) to place the planned 10-story courthouse near the middle of the site, allowing open public spaces at ground level around the site’s perimeter.
“We have similar amounts of space on the north side near the Tarpon River, on the west side facing Third Avenue, and on the south side facing 11th Street,” SOM Director Joseph Ruocco says. “By pulling the building in close to the center of the site, that allows us to create these new landscaped areas. That helps mitigate the impact to adjacent structures, but also provides for a setting that we hope will have lasting value for those who visit and work at the court and live in the area.”
SOM designed a courthouse façade composed of fluted panels with built-in slabs of glass, visually animating the exterior while bringing natural daylight inside and blocking heat. “Our curved panels help reflect the light. They also give the façade depth and play with shade and shadow,” says SOM design partner Paul Danna. “The skin is meant to mitigate the negative solar impacts of the South Florida sun but optimize the benefits of natural day lighting. We want to bring the natural daylight in where we can use it and reject it as we desire to minimize solar heat loads on the building.”
SOM’s design will guide companies on a design-build team that will complete the courthouse project. The GSA is expected to select a design-build team in June, and the 27-month construction phase of the project is scheduled to start in October 2023.
By then, the GSA probably will have decided what to do with the existing courthouse. Just west of it, a long-vacant lot potentially could be developed by someone who would preserve the courthouse building, Glassman says. “Someone could build something on that empty lot, and then preserve this building,” he says. “I think that structure could be very easily maintained and just gutted inside for whatever purpose.”
The city commissioner said he is excited about the new courthouse and likes its architectural design. “I think it’s going to be a very impressive building,” he says, “but I also think that the current one is … So, it’s important to me and important to the city that we preserve that building.”