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(This story, in slightly different form, originally appeared in Incisive Media’s Daily Business Review.)

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL-Developers of the proposed Sea Gate Plaza are among a growing number of property owners trying to benefit from the proposed expansion of the Broward County Courthouse. More than two years in the planning, the 273,000-square-foot Sea Gate office and retail project has grown by about 50,000 square feet as developer Sea Gate Land Ventures I of Sarasota has acquired more land.

The bigger Sea Gate project, planned for at 235 SE Ninth St., comes as county officials finally are considering a formal proposal to expand the courthouse on Southeast Sixth Street. The aging building has been plagued by rodents and several floods from broken water pipes.

Despite tight credit markets, Sea Gate and other downtown property owners now are jockeying for a chance to reap business and development benefits that a bigger courthouse may bring.

“The new courthouse project is driving most of the action I’ve been seeing” in the area south of New River, says broker Bob Soucy of Coldwell Banker Commercial in Weston. “With prices down, people are lining up to put their plans in motion, hoping that financing will free up for projects.”

Soucy last year had buyers under contract to acquire three lots owned by the Helen Cheshire Revocable Trust at 619-625 SE First Ave., immediately south of the judicial parking garage and west of the AutoNation office building. The deal fell apart after the buyers, who Soucy described as well-known local investors, couldn’t get acquisition financing.

Now, the lots totaling a little more than half an acre are back on the market and prospective buyers are keen to acquire the land for a new parking garage to serve courthouse-related businesses, Soucy said. Originally listed at about $3 million, the lots’ current asking price is $2.5 million, or about $100 per square foot.

Soucy said that’s less than half of the per-acre price nearby property owners, including former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, are seeking for 1.5 acres they want the county to buy for the courthouse project. At $229 per square foot, the Naugle group’s land is at the top of the scale, Soucy said.

Naugle and his partners proposed the deal two weeks ago to County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, who chairs the county’s Courthouse Task Force. They said the county would save $25.5 million if it purchased their property on the east side of Andrews Avenue for the appraised value of $15 million.

The savings would be realized by building a mid-rise project over a larger area, according to an analysis by Jeff Fakanger, the owners’ architect. If the county rejects their proposal, the partners said they plan to build a 22- to 24-story office building on the lots. The property stretches along Andrews Avenue from Southeast Fifth to Sixth streets.

Naugle, who served as mayor for 12 years and whose wife Carol-Lisa Phillips is a Broward Circuit Court judge, dismisses the idea that he might benefit from his prominence in local politics. “I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” he says. “The bigger question is if the county is going to go ahead with the project.”

If the county does embrace his proposed deal, officials should consider broadening it even more, Naugle says. He suggests tearing down the aging courthouse after a new facility is built and replacing it with a federal courthouse.

Currently located at Broward Boulevard and Southeast Third Avenue, the federal building and its possible relocation have been the subject of much conjecture for the better part of the decade. At one point, there was serious consideration about building a new federal facility on several sites south of Southwest Seventh Street, including on Hardy Park adjacent to the historic South Side School at Andrews Avenue and Southwest Seventh Street.

Naugle thinks the Sea Gate project would be far enough away from any office building he and his partners may put up to prevent competition. At the same time, he says more offices can only help promote development of the area south of the New River as the “judicial district.”

Sea Gate executives, who want to begin construction on the 15-story office tower next year, still are seeking financing for the $42-million project. “We’re getting there,” says Hornback. He and his partners assembled nine parcels from 2006 to last year, paying about $4.4 million for almost an acre.

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