The political circus that has surrounded a controversial plan to redevelop Liberty Square traveled to County Hall Thursday, where allegations of cash payoffs, disrespect and voodoo curses dominated a hearing crucial to Related Urban Development Group’s $307 million mixed-use project.
In a victory for Related, commissioners on the county’s Economic and Prosperity committee voted 4-0 to allow the proposed rebuild of the county’s oldest public housing project to move forward and be considered by the full board of commissioners.
But the committee did so only after county attorneys told Commissioner Audrey Edmonson she couldn’t force Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate parallel terms for a project proposed by runner-up developer Atlantic Pacific Communities. And the committee, including Bruno Barreiro, Daniella Levine-Cava and Xavier Suarez, declined to recommend the project.
“I’m not throwing Related out,” Edmonson argued. “I just want the best deal for this community.”
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The hearing also revealed a new, complicated wrinkle: Preservation group Dade Heritage Trust will apply soon to the city of Miami to have the New Deal-era complex’s community center declared historic, potentially forcing changes to the county’s redevelopment plan.
If the application passes, it would be only the latest complication for Gimenez’s Liberty Square Rising plan. The 57-acre complex of outdated row houses is substandard, plagued by gun violence, and badly in need of an overhaul, Gimenez argues. Some residents who spoke Thursday pleaded with the county to raze the project, saying they were tired of sleeping on the floor for fear of getting shot while they lay in their beds.
But the subsidized community of roughly 600 families has been split on the project ever since a redevelopment proposal by Atlantic Pacific was initially ranked first by a selection committee only to be leapfrogged by Related Urban when the two developers were given two weeks to improve upon their proposals. Supporters for both projects filled the commission chambers beyond capacity Thursday to argue their side, and at times lobbed allegations that the other side had been paid to attend the meeting.
The meeting wasn’t out of character for the debate that has surrounded the project, which has been the subject of dueling press conferences, complaints of ethical misbehavior and a legal review that stopped the process for several months.
Things have gotten so heated over the project, Edmonson said she received calls from people who threatened her with voodoo. The commissioner also promised to refer allegations of cash payoffs and small-time favors with things like fake eyelashes and chicken dinners to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics, which already has two open cases related to the project.
Edmonson, who grew up in Liberty City and represents the community, lamented how torn the neighborhood has become.
“You were a united community. Now all of a sudden you’ve got half here and half there,” she said. “I don’t care what they buy for you, I don’t care what they pay you for. Don’t do it.”
But even as Edmonson criticized the details of the development agreement, job commitments and community benefits negotiated with Related Urban, the big news out of Thursday’s hearing was that the committee moved the project forward instead of deferring action and delaying the project. Housing Director Michael Liu opened the hearing by warning that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development could come down on the county if it did nothing.
“The consequences of inaction could be profound,” he warned.
Now, Related Urban will be able to make its pitch to all commissioners while seeking an approval that could allow the developer to begin work on its plans to build 1,572 units at Liberty Square and a vacant, nine-acre parcel about two miles away. Atlantic Pacific will also be able to again make its case for its own project, which executives argued Thursday would better serve the community.
Albert Milo, Related Urban Development Group’s senior vice president, said after the hearing that he’s hoping to sit down with Edmonson and address her concerns.
“We respect Commissioner Edmonson’s leadership. She brought up a lot of valid points,” Milo said. “We’ll work the next couple of weeks to have a sit-down with her and address some of the issues that she raised.”