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April 17, 2014

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For $10 million, you could own an abandoned downtown courthouse

Though appraisal finds more worth in razing old building, county sees potential for bidders

Image

Sam Morris

This is the hallway leading to court rooms in the old county court house Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.

Updated Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 | 8:25 p.m.

Courthouse for Sale

A chair in a judge's chambers faces the window in the old county court house Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The half-century-old Clark County courthouse in downtown Las Vegas, a seven-story house of justice that has been abandoned for eight years, is the definition of a fixer-upper.

The building on the corner of Third Street and Carson Avenue has been the victim of frequent vandalism and a popular campground for vagrants, who evaded security in the courthouse’s labyrinthine corridors so successfully the county was forced to bring in dogs on several occasions to sniff them out.

Frequent copper thefts have left the building stripped and resulted in flooding on the fourth floor, which contributes to the odorous musk that pervades the structure.

The courthouse is in such poor shape that a recent appraisal said the land was more valuable without the building. It suggested the best use for the site was to raze the building and the adjacent parking structure, although the asbestos-riddled walls and lead paint will make doing so an expensive proposition.

Still, the recent surge in the downtown real estate market, which has seen hundreds of millions spent on land acquisitions in recent years, has the county seeing gold in the faded blue exterior of the courthouse, and it’s hoping to flip the prime piece of property for at least $10 million at an October auction.

A courthouse was first established on the site alongside a public library, Las Vegas city hall and a jail in 1905 after the land was dedicated by the Las Vegas Land and Water Co.

The current 315,180-square-foot building was constructed in 1960.

For decades, the courthouse was the hub of the regional criminal justice system and played host to scores of high-profile cases, such as the Ted Binion murder trial.

Today, the building is hauntingly empty, seemingly abandoned overnight. The courtrooms, complete with jury boxes, gallery seating and a witness stand, remain intact, if a bit worn. Several holding cells are scattered throughout the first two floors, and upper levels house judges chambers and offices still filled with desks and cubicles.

The county hasn’t invested in much maintenance for the building since it’s been empty, but it still spends $140,000 annually to provide constant security and to keep the utilities on.

Floors throughout are strewn with paper and broken glass while old furniture, electronics and other junk is piled in almost every corner.

County workers are removing some of the furniture from the building, but the winning bidder will get the rest as is.

The building is structurally sound, said Jerome Stueve, director of real property management for the county, but virtually every other system, from the electrical to the plumbing and the air conditioning, would have to be replaced in a renovation.

“Most of the damage is cosmetic, but you’d have to upgrade everything because the codes have changed so much since it was built,” he said. “Any renovation would be expensive.”

The courthouse’s dilapidated condition led the county to discount its asking price by more than $3 million to account for the costs of abating the asbestos and razing it.

If the property sells, about one-third of the profit will go to Las Vegas, with the county keeping the rest for its general fund. If no bids reach the $10 million minimum, the building will continue to be mothballed.

Even with the discount, the $10 million represents a steep asking price for a property with lots of potential — a convention center, hotel-casino or office space have all been floated as possible fits — but plenty of hassle.

“If I was looking at just a land basis, I’m not sure I’d pay $10 million for what they have,” said Brandon Wiegand, executive vice president of acquisitions at Focus Commercial Group. “It’s a great location, but what you have to remember: Not only are you buying the land, now you’ve also got the cost of demolishing the building.”

The property’s best asset is its size — it covers an entire city block — leading to more opportunity for denser development, Weigand said.

“Two-and-a-half acres on the outskirts of town is tiny,” he said. “But downtown, that’s huge.”

Stueve said the county has already received serious interest in the property from several parties, but the ultimate test will come when the bids are unsealed Oct. 1.

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