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Miami's condo king breaks silence on sea level rise comment: 'Maybe I had too many drinks'

Jorge Pérez, the chairman and CEO of The Related Group, says he doesn't remember making the dismissive remark about sea level rise quoted in Jeff Goodell's book 'The Water Will Rise' but says the comment was 'idiotic.'
Jorge Pérez, the chairman and CEO of The Related Group, says he doesn't remember making the dismissive remark about sea level rise quoted in Jeff Goodell's book 'The Water Will Rise' but says the comment was 'idiotic.' jiglesias@MiamiHerald.com

When author Jeff Goodell approached developer Jorge Pérez during a party at the Pérez Art Museum to ask him if sea level rise had changed his approach to building, the chairman and CEO of The Related Group replied: "In 20 or 30 years, someone is going to find a solution for this. Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”

That quote made it into Goodell's 2017 book, "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World," a chilling, exhaustively researched look at the growing environmental threat poised to become a global disaster.

Because Pérez rarely speaks about sea level rise, his quote from the book went viral — embodying the seemingly cavalier approach real estate developers have toward sea level rise in coastal cities.

During an interview with the Miami Herald to celebrate the upcoming opening of Related's latest project — the 57-story SLS Lux Brickell condo hotel at 805 South Miami Avenue — Pérez called his comment "idiotic," although he also says he doesn't remember saying it.

Here is a transcript of Pérez's reaction to the infamous quote and his overall thoughts on environmental issues.

"Let me tell you — and I want to be very very candid, even though it might sound politically incorrect — I have no idea who this reporter is. I have absolutely no recollection of a reporter coming to me and asking me these questions. So everything that I am saying now is speculation as to what I could have [said], knowing myself. Okay?

"If I’m in the middle of a gala that I have put together and I have all kinds of friends and press asking me questions, I might have said something that was improper, maybe as a joke. Because anybody [who] knows me knows that environmentally I am very sensitive. I have taken strong positions against the Trump administration on everything they are doing that is environmentally incorrect, [such as] leaving the Paris treaty, the exploitation of natural resources and taking global warming lightly.

"To be very clear, when I [talk about] the major issues that we have, the environment is always one of them. You will hear me talk about affordable housing, public transportation, high-paying jobs — Florida continues to produce jobs like crazy, but they are not jobs that can really provide for middle and upper middle class families — and finally the environment. Those are the topics that again and again and again, living in a coastal city, I’m very aware that we [face].

"So I am sorry that that quote ever happened. I did not mean that at all. Not only do I have children, but I hope to have grandchildren [who] will be here 30, 50, 100 years from now. It is very important for me that we are environmentally conscious, particularly in coastal areas. This doesn’t just apply to Miami. Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Washington DC and New York have the same problems. We’re getting warmer because of the gases that are staying in the atmosphere. The icebergs and the frozen caps in the north and south poles are melting and sea levels are going to rise.

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Jorge Pérez, the chairman and CEO of The Related Group, sits inside one of the community rooms at SLS Lux Brickell, his company's latest project, a 57-story luxury condo and hotel in Miami. Jose Iglesias jiglesias@MiamiHerald.com

"The question we need to ask ourselves as South Floridians is 'What can we do?' As citizens of the world, we’re talking a much longer-term strategy, because it doesn’t matter what we do in South Florida if everyone else messes up the environment. As citizens of the world, we have to be conscious about not driving as much or using electric cars. [We need to lower] anything that causes pollution and gases to stay in the atmosphere.

"On a local basis, what can we do as developers? We can make our buildings higher to withstand a two-foot [sea surge]. As government, we have to [make] better sewers and pumping systems to get the water out of certain areas. Elevate the level of the roads. Increase the [heights] of sea walls and so forth. There’s a number of specific actions that should be taken in order for us to be able to control the sea rise and global warming. It is an important, important issue.

This video shows roads and properties in Miami Beach that would be underwater with three feet of sea level rise, which current projections indicate could happen by 2050. The animation was created using LIDAR aerial survey data from 2007 and 2015,

"We are going to take certain measures — and I don’t know what they are — that are going to cool the atmosphere and take the gases out. The level of technological change today is so rapid — I heard a statistic that in the last five years we’ve had more [advances] than in the last 100 years combined — I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen in the next five or ten years.

"What I’m saying is that as people realize that this is a pressing problem and it’s going to influence their lives, there’s going to be a lot of investment in things that are environmentally sustainable. Buildings will become smarter. Cars will be used less. The trains you see being built now use a combination of electrical power. We are going to become smarter to combat this global warming. But to say this is an issue that doesn’t affect me is absolutely idiotic. If I said it, maybe I had too many drinks that night."

The book author responds

The Herald also reached out to Goodell for a reaction to Pérez's comments. Here is what he said:

"The conversation happened exactly as I recorded it in the book. I’m glad to hear that [Pérez] is willing to talk openly about the issue now. I’m still not convinced he understands the difference between an environmental issue and the existential risk Miami faces. Given his concern, it would be great to see him publicly support zoning and building code changes, as well as fees for developers that would fund infrastructure projects, that would help Miami adapt to what's coming."

The Herald's full interview with Jorge Pérez will run this summer.

Dutch water-management expert Henk Ovink tours Miami Beach’s sea-level-rise resiliency projects. Henk Ovink (right) talks to Miami Beach Assistant City Engineer Roger Buell during the short tour.

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