Nearly five years after a study concluded that Lakeland was an untenable location for the 2nd District Court of Appeal, state legislators – led by Sen Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg – have moved to build a new $50 million courthouse in downtown St. Pete.
On Thursday, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, ended months of speculation and debate among state Republicans by announcing the new courthouse will reside on the state-owned site of the Sebring Building at 525 Mirror Lake Drive North. The building places the new courthouse near St. Petersburg City Hall and the Pinellas County Clerk of Court.
Brandes said he was not surprised the state chose the Mirror Lake location. He said lawmakers were looking at two or three sites and the Sebring Building was a “top-tier candidate.”
“I think it’s fantastic for St. Petersburg; I think it’s fantastic for the legal community,” he said. “It’s exciting for Stetson Law School to have access that close – and frankly, it reshapes the legal community of the Tampa Bay market.
“It makes St. Petersburg the hub.”
Brandes said the state already owns the property, making the Mirror Lake location ideal. Furthermore, he called the three acres on a lake in the center of downtown irreplaceable and explained that if the property went up for sale, it could potentially fetch $15 million. He also called the new courthouse a landmark building.
“It’s going to be a $50 million new build in downtown St. Petersburg that is going to spur redevelopment of that entire region,” said Brandes. “That Mirror Lake region is really ripe for redevelopment, and we see this as the catalyst for redevelopment.”
St. Petersburg City Councilmember Gina Driscoll sought to designate Mirror Lake as a historic designation earlier this year. The neighborhood is home to 11 buildings on the city’s Register of Historic Places. However, Driscoll withdrew her proposal in August because it could potentially jeopardize the Sebring Building as a location for the DCA.
Brandes said he toured the Sebring Building about seven or eight months ago and noted multiple vacant floors. He said it would take a major investment in renovations to utilize the facility, and the best way forward is to demolish it and rebuild. He added that the state would build the new courthouse on a similar footprint.
Brandes also called the changes imminent. He said the state notified the current employees in the building before a public announcement was made, and is now looking for a new space to house those operations. Brandes said the facility is home to several government agencies, and the state will need to find a joint facility, “but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
The new courthouse is called the Bernie McCabe Courthouse after the longtime Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney, who died in January. Sprowls served under McCabe and called him a friend and mentor in a statement. Sprowls said the courthouse “will serve as a physical symbol of McCabe’s deep legacy of devotion to justice and to Pinellas County” in the statement, and Brandes echoed the sentiment.
“I think Bernie was an incredible public servant for decades,” said Brandes. “It’s truly an honor for us to name it after him.”
Why Tampa Bay?
Lakeland is the official center for state law for the 2nd District, and the DCA was established there in 1956. A 2016 study, prepared by Savills Studley Occupier Services and the National Center for State Courts, stated that operations significantly shifted after creating a Tampa branch in 1980. The study, specifically prepared for state legislators, found that 13 of 16 2nd DCA judges work in Tampa full time, while the remaining three split their time between Tampa and Lakeland.
The study also found that 61% of DCA employees live in Hillsborough or Pinellas Counties, compared to 34% living in Polk County. Additionally, the report said that 41% of the district’s population lives in the Tampa Bay region, while just 12% lives in Polk County.
The study noted that the 2nd DCA is the only appellate court in the state to have its core operations split into two locations – Tampa and Lakeland. Cases have been heard out of a Stetson College of Law classroom in Tampa since the Lakeland courthouse was deemed uninhabitable due to a mold infestation and other concerns. The clerk’s office remained in Lakeland.
“Keeping your DCA judges in broom closets isn’t an effective long-term strategy,” said Brandes.
The study explicitly stated that the best long-term option for the district would be to build a new state-owned courthouse in the Tampa Bay region. State lawmakers agreed, and in 2020 the legislature approved $21 million to begin plans for a new courthouse in Pinellas County. However, the governor vetoed the project due to the onset of the Covid pandemic.
Instead of coming back with a similar proposal, Sen. Kelly Stargel, R-Lakeland, asked for $50 million for a new Polk County facility. Stargel’s husband, John Stargel, was appointed by the governor to serve as a judge in the 2nd DCA last summer.
“Understand, the 2nd DCA, 60% of their cases come from the Tampa Bay market,” said Brandes. “While they have multiple counties beyond Tampa Bay, the vast majority of their cases are local.”
Brandes said St. Petersburg residents could expect the DCA to bring much more than just judges and clerks. He said the new courthouse would bring a host of tertiary legal services, such as law firms that specialize in appellate work, transcription services and a myriad of new construction jobs.
Brandes added that Wannamacher Jensen Architects, located in Mirror Lake, have been named the architect for the new facility.
“They will be able to observe the facility from across the lake as it’s being built,” said Brandes. “The other services provided – to me – are just as exciting as the court.
“Because what the court throws off is literally tens of millions of dollars in other services and other investments that will be made because of the court being located in downtown St. Petersburg.”