Eighteen months of lobbying and politicking gave way Wednesday at Liberty Square like symbolic piles of white sand beneath the spades of ceremonial shovels as Miami-Dade County broke ground on a $307 million redevelopment.
Now the question is what will break next: the stigma surrounding the county’s oldest and largest public housing project, or the lofty promises floated Wednesday by Miami’s politicians and businessmen.
“This is going to be a renaissance,” said County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents the community and grew up down the street from Liberty Square. “When this is complete, you will have a place that you can say ‘I can come home and be proud.’ You will have a place that is guaranteed to reduce the crime in this area. You will be able to come home and have amenities that you’ve never had before.”
The ambitious project under way by Related Urban Development Group, the affordable housing arm of Miami’s biggest luxury condo developer, involves demolishing and rebuilding Liberty Square’s 709 public housing units in phases. The end product — which also includes the construction of a new housing complex in Brownsville — is planned as a bustling, mixed-income community with shops, parks, community facilities and 1,400 condos, townhouses and apartments.
Gimenez’s administration hopes to see the project completed by the time he leaves office in 2020. He promised Wednesday that the redevelopment will finally bring the modern standards of living to a community built nearly a century ago.
But more importantly, he hopes that by redesigning and reinvesting in Liberty Square, the county will return the community to its roots as a stepping stone to better things and push away the predators who’ve turned the neighborhood into a nighttime shooting gallery.
“We are changing the narrative surrounding Liberty Square and Liberty City,” he said. “No doubt, this redevelopment project will leave a lasting positive impact in our community.”
Wednesday’s event — bearing none of the acrimony that dominated the competition to pick a developer — was symbolic. Renovations to abandoned, run-down units began months ago in order to make them available for families moving out of buildings to be demolished. The first signs of that demolition will begin within two weeks, starting with an abandoned, pale blue row house on 65th Street and 14th Avenue.
The first phase of the years-long project focuses on the northwest section of Liberty Square and includes the construction of six new buildings and 200 new housing units.
But the event marks the jumping-off point for history, which will ultimately decide if the project benefits people in one of Miami’s poorest communities or further splinters and disadvantages them the way the redevelopment of the James E Scott projects did in 2000.
Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who grew up in the Scott Carver projects, told Jorge M. Perez, chairman and CEO of the Related Group, that the onus is on him.
“The burden is on your shoulders,” he said from a stage planted in the right field grass of the baseball field behind the Liberty Square community center. “We won’t bear it.”
“It’s a huge responsibility that we’re not taking lightly,” Perez later acknowledged.
Only a few minutes later, a crowd of businessmen, residents and media walked across 65th Street to a pile of white sand with shovels. They cut a ribbon with oversized scissors and tossed some dirt around with shovels.
But walking away, hard hat still on his head, Related Urban principal Albert Milo knew that real celebration is still years away.
“Now,” he said, “the real work begins.”