Two years ago, after Little Havana’s Hope Center complex for the disabled closed, the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Miami put its two-acre property up for sale only to watch it sit idle on the market.
They got a few nibbles. But with a $3.7 million asking price for land restricted to civic and religious uses, no one bit hard. A few buyers considered asking for a zoning change, but the likely time and expense involved was too daunting.
And so the land went unsold until this October, when a high profile auto executive paid $3.2 million — just weeks before the city announced a controversial plan to rezone the entire neighborhood.
Ahead of a vote to increase the density and height of what’s allowed in the culturally rich but struggling community, the timing of the Hope Center purchase — and the presence of some other notable landowners who might benefit from the change — is fueling allegations that the city is easing zoning restrictions in order to appease connected developers and property owners. But area Commissioner Frank Carollo says critics are trying to turn coincidence into conspiracy.
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“No one is getting special treatment,” said Carollo.
Since Nov. 18, Miami’s planning department has been pushing to increase the height and density of what can be built throughout East Little Havana, a neighborhood immediately west of where Interstate 95 crosses the south bank of the Miami River. City planners say a citywide rezoning in 2010 had the adverse impact of discouraging investment and improvements in the poor, Hispanic community, so the change is needed to spur reinvestment.
But fears of gentrification have stoked intense opposition and cynicism. And last month, Miami Herald news partner WLRN reported that several connected property owners might benefit from the up-zoning.
WLRN reported the purchase of the old Hope Center land by Brickell Motors CEO Mario Murgado’s MAR 660 SW 4th Street, LLC., and explained that former State Rep. Manny Prieguez and the father of Florida Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera owned property in the area. Murgado and Prieguez, both of whom give regularly to campaigns, had also contributed to Commissioner Carollo’s election accounts in 2009 and 2013.
For some activists, the information felt like validation.
“All of us in this movement have been asking, why do they want to do this? Why all of a sudden such great interest and motivation to do this?” said school teacher Marta Zayas. “They’ve ignored Little Havana on all levels. So now they’re suddenly very interested in up-zoning and changing requirements, and it all seems to point to an interest in accommodating developers and investors.”
But the landowners being scrutinized say there’s nothing underhanded afoot.
“Is the city of Miami doing this because one guy owns 9,500 square feet?” said Prieguez, whose family owns a riverfront parcel that would be up-zoned. “It’s silly. It’s really, really, really silly.”
For decades, the Prieguez family has run Miami River Lobster and Stone Crab on parcels straddling the Southwest First Street bridge. If the proposed zoning change goes through, the acre of contiguous riverfront land the family owns east of the bridge would likely become more attractive to developers lusting for land on the river.
Prieguez, who represented the area for six years as a state House member, publicly mentioned his family’s stake in the neighborhood and his support for up-zoning during a January city commission hearing. But he did not mention that his family’s land is quietly for sale.
“My family is at this point in time, for the first time ever, willing to listen to offers on the sale of our properties on the river,” he told The Herald. “I don’t have a real estate agent. I’m not marketing these properties as being for sale. But people call me all the time wanting to know if I’m interested in selling. My answer is ‘Yeah, at the right price.’”
But Prieguez, who is now a lobbyist, said the fact that the city moved to up-zone his property as he fielded offers is coincidence. He said he wasn’t aware the zoning change was proposed until his cousin, who is a land-use attorney, emailed him Dec. 2 to share the city’s map.
“One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. I had no idea that this was happening,” he said. “But I believe it’s the right thing to do. East Little Havana needs this.”
WLRN also reported that Carlos Lopez-Cantera Sr., the father of Florida’s lieutenant governor, owns several properties through corporations, although the lieutenant governor said during a recent visit to Miami that “I am not involved in any of my family’s operations.”
Murgado, whose Brickell Motors is an anchor to Southwest Eighth Street, needs the city to change the zoning on his new property in order to build an overflow lot for his dealerships a few blocks south.
But like Prieguez, Murgado said he wasn’t aware a zoning change was looming when he bought the Hope Center property. He said he was already planning on changing the zoning of the land, something the real estate agent who brokered the deal for the Cerebral Palsy Association said was desired by other buyers due to the civic restrictions.
“I really wasn’t sure of what even was going through city hall. My concern was to get my place and do my parking and storage,” Murgado said. “I certainly hope they change whatever they have to change. Our area, what it needs, is for people to invest and live here.”
Combined, Murgado and Prieguez contributed $7,250 total combined to Carollo’s 2009 and 2013 campaigns, during which the commissioner raised close to $500,000 total. Carollo has also said that Murgado helps him with charities and events.
But Carollo says he never discussed the up-zoning proposal with the two men, and that the city’s planning director presented the plan to him, not the other way around. He said campaign contributions have no bearing on how he will vote in April when the legislation is expected to return for a final decision following a state review.
“If you own property there, the city is trying to give incentives to fix it up and go back to its original form,” Carollo said. “I want the residents to feel like they will live there for decades to come, not as a temporary stop until they buy a better home elsewhere.”