Miami-Dade County

College kills downtown Miami museum project, blames feud with art dealer

A rendering of Related Group’s proposed project at 520 Biscayne Blvd.
A rendering of Related Group’s proposed project at 520 Biscayne Blvd.

Miami Dade College’s grand plan to build a massive downtown cultural center imploded Monday when college trustees chose to cancel the project rather than proceed amid a declining real estate market and an escalating feud with a local art dealer.

The unanimous decision aborts a year-long effort to create a modern theater, museum and conference center capable of hosting film festivals, college events and presidential debates next to the Freedom Tower. Instead, the project brought the college costly lawsuits, public spats and a bizarre scandal that saw a consultant and her elementary-school-age daughter tailed to their home by private investigators.

“It’s really truly unfortunate that this has become such a target,” said vice chairman Armando J. Olivera. “There’s a little bit of me that mourns how badly this has turned out.”

There’s a little bit of me that mourns how badly this has turned out

Miami Dade College vice chairman

Trustees said there’s nothing stopping them from once again pursuing the redevelopment of the 2.6-acre faculty parking lot at 520 Biscayne Blvd. when the market is back on the upswing. But they slammed Gary Nader, an art dealer whose Nader + Museu LLP development team submitted an unsolicited proposal last year to build a college cultural center and luxury condos only to protest when the college went a different direction.

Trustees said legal bills defending his lawsuits had “reached into the six-figure range,” and accused Nader of being eager to “smear” the college in the media.

“Nader’s refusal to sign an agreement not to sue makes it impossible to quantify the college’s exposure to ongoing litigation,” said chairman Armando J. Bucelo, Jr. “I’m not comfortable moving forward on a path that appears to lead to more litigation.”

Bill Riley, an attorney representing Nader + Museu, said his clients have been unfairly branded as obstructionists by the college for trying to defend their rights as bidders.

They’d like to spin it that somehow we did something wrong because we didn’t want to forego our rights

attorney Bill Riley

“They’d like to spin it that somehow we did something wrong because we didn’t want to forgo our rights and sign an agreement not to sue,” he said. “We had to waive all our rights or somehow we were the bad people.”

The relationship between the college and Nader began to fray noticeably in March when a selection committee gave preference to a proposal by condo developer Related Group. It melted down completely in June after the college released the results of an investigation prompted by private investigators who revealed that a Related Group executive and a college consultant with law firm Bilzin Sumberg had spoken and met privately in possible violation of a procurement gag order intended to avoid the perception of collusion.

The college tapped former trustee and U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez to investigate. He cleared the women of impropriety, finding that their young daughters were friends and schoolmates and the relationship had been disclosed verbally to the college. On the other hand, the college said the investigators — who twice tailed Bilzin Sumberg attorney Suzanne Amaducci-Adams — may have violated the same “cone of silence” themselves by contacting a trustee about their findings.

The investigators never disclosed their client, but the college suspected Nader — the only developer who refused to sign a required affidavit swearing that he hadn’t hired the private eyes. Nader, in turn, challenged the college’s investigation, and demanded — and later sued — to obtain records that he said were related to the investigation and that should have been disclosed.

Bilzin Sumberg released a statement Monday reiterating that Nader’s allegations were proven to be without merit, but Riley contends that Martinez’s probe of the matter was incomplete.

Regardless, college President Eduardo Padrón recommended months ago that trustees vote to negotiate a deal with Related, which proposed to build some variation of a plan to build the cultural center along with a 75-story high-rise with 350 condos, a 39-story office tower and a 100-key boutique hotel. He’d hoped trustees would approve his request Monday, but they said Nader had proved too volatile to continue.

We’ll eventually do our project. When? Nobody knows

College President Eduardo Padron

After the meeting, Betsy McCoy, general counsel for Related Group, said Nader had cost Miami an important project.

The college “simply can’t continue and incur the risk of additional litigation with Mr. Nader,” she said. “The only way to stop that is to stop the project, to the great loss of the community and this college.”

Riley, though, said Nader has spent around $4 million bidding on the project and was hurt as much as anyone by Monday’s decision.

“It could serve some people,” he said. “But it doesn’t serve Nader and it doesn’t serve us.”

After the meeting, Padrón told the Miami Herald that the board had made the right decision.

“It’s obvious that the best decision at this point is to put a hold on it and wait until better times. I’m not giving up,” he said. “We’ll eventually do our project. When? Nobody knows.”