Calling the living conditions at the county's oldest public housing project unacceptable, Miami-Dade commissioners voted Wednesday to move forward with the redevelopment of Liberty Square and award the $307 million project to the affordable-housing arm of real estate giant Related Group.
With the unanimous support of commissioners, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will now work to finalize two 75-year leases and a development agreement with Related Urban Development Group. The developer plans to raze the faded row houses built nearly 80 years ago in Liberty City, and build a modern complex of apartments, town homes, shops and community facilities.
Development of the 1,572-unit project, which also includes the construction of a smaller housing complex two miles away in Brownsville, is expected to take about five years from start to finish. The project has been designed so that no one currently living in Liberty Square will be displaced.
“It's time that the neighborhood changes for the better,” Related Group CEO Jorge Pérez — typically associated with luxury condos — said after Wednesday's vote. “You can't have areas where you have so much of the haves and have-nots.”
You can't have areas where you have so much of the haves and have-nots
Related Group CEO Jorge Pérez
Built in 1937 and marketed as a new standard of segregated living for African Americans, Liberty Square is today better known as a community plagued by substandard living conditions, persistent poverty and gun violence.
Gimenez and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson announced plans to invest $46 million in county money into the redevelopment of Liberty Square and nearby Lincoln Gardens back in January 2015, and the mayor spent the last year soliciting bids from affordable developers. In April, after Related Group won top scores from a selection committee and beat out competitor Atlantic Pacific, Gimenez announced that a proposed project was in place and ready to go before commissioners.
But as much as everyone agreed with the need to improve housing for the roughly 640 families at Liberty Square, the project has been dogged for months by allegations of favoritism and pay-offs. On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Inspector General Mary Cagle acknowledged that her office is investigating the allegations.
We've issued subpoenas. We're interviewing a lot of people
Mary Cagle, Miami-Dade Inspector General
“We've issued subpoenas,” Cagle told commissioners. “We're interviewing a lot of people. I can't comment on an open investigation.”
During the hearing, Edmonson, who represents Liberty City and has grown disenchanted with Gimenez’s handling of the project, laid into Related Group, and county housing director Michael Liu, saying they'd shut key portions of the community out of the discussion and tried to curry favor through gifts. Edmonson focused several times on Related’s decision to bring former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, now living in Atlanta, into the fold as part of its community outreach team, telling people in the audience Spence-Jones had been given $100,000 to “buy y’all.”
“Entangled in this process were overzealous promises made by paid advocates and self-appointed community leaders,” Edmonson said. “It makes one wonder to what lengths would a developer go through?”
Albert Milo, Related Urban's senior vice president, declined to address Edmonson's comments following the hearing. Reached by phone, Spence-Jones said “God bless Audrey Edmonson.”
“I did not get paid 100 grand. That is a false statement,” she said. “I was born in this community and I have the right to continue to serve the neighborhood I grew up in.”
God bless Audrey Edmonson
But for all the accusations, barbs and unfinished business, Liberty Square residents cheered after Edmonson eventually made the motion to approve Related Urban as the developer on the project, with some new conditions related to community input and jobs.
According to public documents, the county will now finalize agreements and submit demolition plans to the U.S. Housing Department. Related will then temporarily renovate dozens of abandoned units at Liberty Square. Once that's done, the county will move families out of the northwest corner of the complex into the renovated units, and begin the long process of redeveloping Liberty Square and nearby Lincoln Gardens, 4701 NW 24th Ct.
The county’s agreement with Related calls for the developer to return all of the county’s $46 million investment, millions of which will be set aside and reinvested into Liberty City and Brownsville. The developer has also pledged to set aside half of construction contracts for small and minority-owned businesses, and 30 percent of construction jobs for residents of public housing.
“The people of Liberty Square will help to build the new Liberty Square,” Gimenez said. “They have the right to live without rampant crime, the right to live without rats and roaches. That is their right and we should give it to them.”