Major players vie to build new Broward Courthouse parking garage

The battles to win more than $330 million in public money set aside for the new Broward County Courthouse have started as some of Fort Lauderdale's power players and their lobbyists fight it out over who will build a 1,000-space public garage.
The garage, with an estimated price tag of $35 million, is the first part of the courthouse project to go up for bid and a prelude to the main event who wins the contract to build the 20-story courthouse tower itself. If the contest over the garage contract is any indication, competition will be fierce for the county's largest public building project going.

"This is an abnormal [economic] environment and people are reacting if there is something out there to grab, people are trying as hard as they can to get it," said Pat Sessions, development manager for Kygo LLC, one of three groups bidding for the garage project.

The garage project is pitting board members of the Fort Lauderdale's Downtown Development Authority against one another. Four of the seven board members of the independent taxing district have financial stakes in where the new parking garage goes.

The authority is charged with maintaining and redeveloping the downtown. City commissioners appoint the authority's board members, who must either own land in Fort Lauderdale's central core or run a company that owns land there.

One of the board members, lawyer and developer William Scherer, is proposing to add three stories to the 2,300-space courthouse parking garage in accordance with a lease he already has with the county. Scherer's group of companies currently has exclusive use of 243 spaces in the garage for the adjacent New River Village developments and controls the garage on nights and weekends.

Scherer wants to take over the parking garage's management and contract it out to fellow authority member Bill Bodenhamer's company, USA Parking.

Another board member, Fred Fazio, and the authority's former chairman Jack Loos have submitted a competing bid to build a six-story garage on land they own on the 600 block of South Andrews Avenue. Construction at the location the old Coca-Cola bottling plant site would be done by Fort Lauderdale-based Stiles Corp., which has executive Denny O'Shea sitting on the authority's board.

The third bid is from Kygo LLC, which owns the land just north of the Publix supermarket at 601 S. Andrews Ave. Kygo a group of investors led by California developer-builder Fred Kern has proposed a seven-floor parking garage but wants the option to build higher.

Kygo has plans to build a 37-story tower on the site with 15 floors of office space and 13 floors for a hotel. Kern said the courthouse parking garage would be incorporated in it.

All three bidders have said they would be able to complete their proposals by the county's September 2012 deadline.

Jockeying for the new garage started months ago after an earlier bidding process was cut short for technical reasons. Scherer has lined up prominent Hollywood lobbyist Bernie Friedman and lobbyist and Republican fundraiser James Blosser to promote his cause.

Fazio, Loos and Stiles Corp. have well-known lobbyist Ron Book on their side along with the authority's attorney, John Milledge, lobbying on their behalf.

"It does seem like there's been a lot of pushing behind the scenes," Kern said. Kygo LLC doesn't have any lobbyists registered with the county, but its development team on the project has met with most of the eight county commissioners.

Scherer said the goal of his lobbying efforts is to make sure officials are educated about the pluses of his bid.

"The whole purpose is to be able to communicate the strengths of your project and that's hard to do at the county level, getting through to the decision makers in a short window of time," he said.

The lobbying under way prompted Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to quit the Courthouse Task Force Advisory Committee, the panel created to make recommendations to the County Commission on what was needed at the new courthouse.

Finkelstein said he received calls from two of the three rival bidders on the same day. That's when he said he became worried that politics could contaminate the task force's recommendations.

"I think in Broward County it is common knowledge that if you want a contract, you start calling the individuals and you do the dance with them," Finkelstein said. "It defies coincidence the same people always are getting the same contracts. It's not an accident. They are all feeding at the same trough."

The selection process for the winning garage bid will be one of the first under Broward's new ethics law. Before those guidelines went into effect last month, seven county commissioners were part of the selection committee that is supposed to recommend which bid the commission should approve.

Now, no county commissioner can sit on the committee.

The new selection committee consists of Court Administrator Carol Lee Ortman, Clerk of Courts Howard Forman, Public Works Director Thomas Hutka, Port Director Phil Allen and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Melissa Heller. The committee is scheduled to hear the competing proposals Oct. 14 and then make its recommendation to the County Commission, which could vote by late October.

The two most common complaints about the existing parking garage are traffic backups on Mondays and the cost of parking $8 an hour. It's the most expensive garage in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and it costs six times more to park there than at the Palm Beach County Courthouse's garage.

A December 2008 study commissioned by the county graded the garage between a "D" and a "F", finding problems with signs and traffic flow, especially on Monday mornings when people report for jury duty. Cars sometimes back up 20 deep on the roads those mornings.

Scherer said it's the county that sets the parking prices and that the Monday snarls result from how the county handles traffic flow. Jurors only are allowed to enter through one entrance, causing the backup, he said.

In addition to opening more entrances, Scherer's team has suggested treating Monday traffic like parking at a major event with flag men directing traffic.

Scherer argues that his proposal, which calls for closing no more than 250 parking spaces at a time while new floors are added, has a clear cost advantage. The county would not have to buy new land and take prime real estate near the new courthouse off the tax rolls. That's ultimately a savings of $30 million, according to Scherer's team.

Milledge, who represents the Fazio-Stiles plan, argues there would be a series of unknowns created by adding floors to the existing garage especially doing major construction while the garage is in operation. The appeal of the old Coca-Cola bottling site is there would be minimal risks in problems developing and it's much closer to the entrance of the new courthouse tower, he says.

David Lowery, Stiles Construction's director of public projects, said that under Scherer's plan, the current garage's ramping and congestion problems would continue.

Sessions, Kygo's development manager, said his group's proposed garage would be the closest to the tower and questions whether the Fazio-Stiles plan would clog Andrews Avenue with traffic. The Kygo garage would be accessible from side streets, he said.

But the Kygo team has told the county that its proposed price to buy the land $60 per square foot is not enough and seriously undervalues the property. The other two proposals have indicated they can meet the county's projected costs.

While the estimated cost for the parking garage hovers at $35 million, that does not factor in what has been described by some courthouse personnel as a critical component a covered walkway to avoid the rain.

Scherer said the existing garage has one, so this isn't an issue with his proposal. His two competitors have said they believe they could utilize the public right-of-way to build a walkway to the new courthouse's entrance, but that it will cost extra.

Clerk of Courts Forman said he thinks a walkway is a vital component for a new garage, to be considered along with cost, location and traffic.

"There's not a whole lot of properties to be considered and there is a lot of competition between them," Forman said. "Just like many issues in Broward County, it's going to get to be a hot one."
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Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale
Website
www.ddaftl.org/
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