When it comes to big, polarizing projects in Miami, auto magnate Norman Braman has often put others on the defensive in the name of good government and smart growth.
When the Miami Marlins received public assistance to build their Little Havana ballpark, he sued to stop the project and helped the recall effort against the county mayor who backed it. In 2013, he described the Miami Dolphins’ quest for stadium subsidies as welfare for a billionaire. More recently, he was part of an effort to keep soccer star David Beckham from building a stadium at the port of Miami.
But as Braman and his wife Irma seek to build a new, privately funded Design District home for the Institute of Contemporary Art, a different narrative is emerging from a small group of opponents who believe a billionaire is threatening to pave over history and use political connections to power his pet project through.
The central issue creating conflict over the proposed 35,000-square-foot museum is that its campus straddles the boundary between the Design District and historic Buena Vista East, a lush residential neighborhood of about 18 blocks speckled with 1920s and ’30s Art Deco duplexes and bungalows. Plans to create a sculpture garden in the rear of the museum require the demolition of three Buena Vista duplexes, leaving preservationists wary of setting a precedent and a few nearby homeowners outraged about losing privacy.
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“I’ve come to realize I’ve become part of Braman’s permanent collection,” said Antonio Grullon, who lives in a two-story home across the street from the proposed museum gardens. “I like to have a beer. I like to have a cigarette on my balcony. Now I’m on display.”
Braman, whose wife is the chairwoman of the museum’s board of directors, says he remains focused on a crucial Thursday Miami commission vote on zoning changes to allow the project, and on building the museum and opening it by Art Basel 2016. He said the museum bought the Buena Vista properties to avoid privacy concerns, but he’s taking the barbs in stride.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he said.
Plans to build a new home for ICA Miami have been in place for about a year now, forged between Braman and Design District developer Craig Robins over lunch. Robins’ DACRA Development and a business partner donated land to the museum, and then the museum — which the Bramans support financially — purchased three non-historic Buena Vista East duplexes to the rear.
When the museum was first announced, art enthusiasts celebrated the introduction of a privately financed, cutting-edge institution to a city eager to embrace culture and shed an image as a superficial tourism magnet.
But tensions simmered below the surface with Buena Vista residents and surfaced last month when attorneys representing the museum sought a rezoning for the campus and a certificate to demolish the duplexes. They grew louder after Miami’s Planning Zoning and Appeals advisory board tried to delay a vote on the project until July out of concern, only to have Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and the city commission force the board to vote last week.
Then, the neighborhoods’ homeowners association, previously uneasy about the project, agreed to endorse the museum. They did so in exchange for a series of conditions, including a promise for free lifetime tickets for Buena Vista residents, priority hiring, and a pledge that DACRA wouldn’t encroach into Buena Vista and would help fight any other commercial developers that try. Though members of the association say the deal is good for the neighborhood, they say it was born in part out of a feeling that the city would approve the museum regardless of their position.
On Wednesday, the zoning board took up the museum again and voted against the project almost unanimously. The board questioned whether the city was ignoring its own regulations and ripped the administration’s decision to be a co-applicant for zoning changes.
“It does look like somebody put their finger on the scales,” board member Charles Gibson said. “I can’t see how in the world the city can make these recommendations. I just cannot fathom it. It just doesn’t smell right.”
Just one night earlier, Miami’s Historic Environmental and Preservation Board voted in favor of demolishing the Buena Vista duplexes — but only after first voting against the project and then quickly reconsidering. At one point, Buena Vista resident Alan Murphy, who shares an address with Grullon, asked whether Braman had paid the board for their support, prompting a heated response from museum attorney Steve Helfman.
“I hope you have some support behind those allegations, my friend. I don’t think you know Mr. Braman very well,” Helfman said. “You don’t read the newspaper, my friend.”
Asked if that was a threat, Helfman said no, “just a warning.”
Robins, a developer with a history of embracing preservation, said in an interview that he understood the concerns about introducing a museum garden into a historic neighborhood but called the board’s final vote a good compromise while noting the three homes to be demolished aren’t considered historic.
He said Braman has been unfairly attacked by a small, vocal group of homeowners who don’t represent the neighborhood.
“The fact that the city of Miami is a co-applicant to get [a museum] built in the city for free is something that we would all expect, and it shouldn’t be attributed to some kind of political influence. There’s been a clear historic precedent in our city to think that museums are good. The only difference here is the city doesn’t have to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Robins, alluding to recent public support for institutions like the Performing Arts Center and the Pérez Art Museum Miami. “It’s totally unfair to say that they’re doing it just for Norman.”
Braman does have significant ties to Regalado, having donated $75,000 over the past three years to the electioneering committee Regalado shares with his daughter, Raquel. She and Braman are also co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging public subsidies for the SkyRise Miami tower. But Mayor Regalado also dismissed the belief that the city is carrying the project simply because it’s a Braman initiative.
“I think that we should be grateful. He didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have to have an open park with sculptures for the residents,” Mayor Regalado said. “I wish we had more Norman Bramans to build things for the people of Miami.”
Braman said if need be, the museum can simply go back to an earlier proposal of putting the sculpture garden on the museum’s roof.
“This is something where Irma and I wanted to give a gift to the city,” he said, adding: “Nothing worthwhile in this world is easy.”
This article was updated to correct the position of Norman Braman and Raquel Regalado in a lawsuit challenging SkyRise Miami. They are co-plaintiffs.