Entrepreneur Moishe Mana, who wants to build one of the biggest development projects Miami has ever seen plumb in the heart of Wynwood’s burgeoning hipster district, made a complex deal earlier this year to win critical support from his fellow neighborhood property owners.
In a key concession, Mana pledged to pay $10 million into a new city-created Wynwood trust fund designed to blunt the impact of new development on the neighborhood’s small-scale charm. In exchange, Mana would get an OK to build a clutch of 24-story residential towers that significantly exceed the maximum height allowed by new zoning rules enacted just last year to protect the neighborhood’s character.
It seemed to work. After a year of negotiation and very public debate, leaders of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, a semi-autonomous public agency representing local property owners, voted to support Mana’s mega-plan despite misgivings about its scale, helping the developer win city commission approval in an initial vote earlier this summer.
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Then Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon stepped in, and everything seemed to change.
After closed-door meetings with Hardemon in which BID members were not included, Mana’s team emerged with a different explanation of the deal. The Mana team told flabbergasted BID members that they would still pay $10 million for the right to build tall, but that at Hardemon’s behest all but $2.5 million of the money would now go to benefit Overtown instead.
Now, on the cusp of a second and final commission vote on the Mana plan that’s set for Thursday, the carefully negotiated agreement between the developer and the BID is on the verge of unraveling over the money issue. After two public BID meetings last month with Mana’s team ended at a bitter loggerheads amid accusations that the developer had breached the agreement, the agency’s board of directors scheduled a vote for Wednesday to consider rescinding their support for the project, barring some last-minute settlement.
If they do so, it’s unclear how that might alter political support for Mana’s project. Commissioners typically defer to their colleagues in considering a proposal inside other commissioners’ districts, but Commissioner Ken Russell also represents a portion of Wynwood and could weigh in. So could other commissioners, since the project is so large, at 25 acres and 10 million square feet of construction, that it has citywide implications.
Hardemon, who represents a swath of Wynwood in addition to neighboring Overtown and who voted in favor of the Mana project at that first hearing, did not respond to requests for an interview relayed through an aide. The Miami Herald requested but did not receive documentation setting out how the money would be used in Overtown, or the justification for the shift.
Hardemon indicated at the June 23 first reading vote on the project that he would seek additional benefits for Overtown, including job and wage guarantees. He also alluded to additional “bonus” payments for allowing Mana to go above 24 stories that could be earmarked for affordable housing in Overtown.
A Mana spokesman pointed to the comment as indicating that Hardemon intended for some of the Wynwood impact money to go to Overtown. But nothing Hardemon said at that meeting suggested he meant to divert money intended for Wynwood, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Only after Mana’s team met with Hardemon subsequently — in a private meeting outside the public record — did the terms of the agreement change. New language in the development agreement with the city, inserted by the developers’ attorneys, shifted the money away from Wynwood — something BID members say they didn’t notice until they saw the documents on the eve of a scheduled second reading vote scheduled for July. Mana asked that vote be postponed after BID members balked.
Mana representatives argue the money shift changes nothing in the agreement substantially, because the developer is still on the hook for $10 million in public benefits payments, in addition to $35 million in promised street and infrastructure improvements in Wynwood itself — something they stress has not changed.
“The commissioner felt we’ve spent all this time talking with Wynwood, but not Overtown,” said Mana’s project architect, Bernard Zyscovich. “In order for him to feel comfortable, he wanted a portion of this money to go to his community, and not have it all go to Wynwood. He basically rearranged the buckets.
“We’re agnostic to where it goes.”
The fallout threatens to revive a split in Wynwood over the neighborhood’s future between Mana — its largest landowner — and scores of other property owners represented by the BID. Last year, the BID spearheaded creation of a special zoning district that limited new construction to eight to 12 stories to preserve the neighborhood’s low-scale charm. Mana applied for his mega-project approval after that, alarming neighbors over its potential impact on Wynwood and spurring negotiations with the BID to make it compatible with its surroundings.
BID leaders say it’s not just about the money.
They also complain that Mana has tried to alter other key pieces of the agreement, including a “phasing” element meant to permit the developer to build his lucrative towers only after completing substantial portions of the project’s centerpiece, a collection of cultural buildings surrounding a public green space on the eastern end of his holdings. The developer’s attorney, Iris Escarra, has publicly assured the BID that the developer is still obligated to abide by that portion of the agreement.
But the BID says the change in the allocation of the money raises issues of trust and principle.
BID member David Polinsky said in an interview the agency’s argument is not with Hardemon, but with Mana, who knew all along that he would have to satisfy the commissioner’s concerns over the impact of his project on Overtown separately.
“We don’t represent Overtown,” Polinsky said. “I warned them throughout this process that they needed to go back to Overtown and the commissioner. He has his prerogatives to set the process. At the end, the burden is on them to satisfy all the other parties.”
Polinsky argues that Mana can well afford to help both Wynwood and Overtown. The special area plan he is seeking approval for would increase the allowable development over the current zoning by 2.5 million square feet, Polinsky said, which given recent sales in Wynwood would realize the developer about $220 million over the value of what he could build today.
At a public meeting last week, Polinsky and other BID board members said they remain open to proposals that could shore up their support for the project. The BID’s co-chairman, Albert Garcia, met with Hardemon on Tuesday, but did not respond to a request for an interview through a spokeswoman.