Miami-Dade County

Tensions rise as community waits for Liberty Square decision

Sara Alvin-Smith in 2010 at Liberty Square.
Sara Alvin-Smith in 2010 at Liberty Square. MIAMI HERALD FILE

The silence lasted only five seconds.

But the pregnant pause that interrupted an October meeting to determine the frontrunner to land a $200 million-plus rebuild of Miami's oldest public housing complex foretold weeks of tension in Liberty City and a conundrum for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Uncertainty has clouded Gimenez’s bold but fragile plan to redevelop Liberty Square since Oct. 1, when a member of a developer-selection committee assigned bidders scores that left her colleagues briefly speechless and completely swayed bidders’ rankings. Her numbers were so divergent from the rest of the committee that the group declined to recommend a developer to Gimenez and instead sought guidance from the county attorney, throwing the process into doubt.

Two months later, the county, bidders and selection committee members remain under a standard procurement gag-order, and there has been no word about what will happen with the committee’s scores. Meanwhile, frustration is growing in Miami’s black community over why the county remains stalled.

“Gimenez said when they initiated this project that this would be the most transparent process ever in the history of Miami-Dade County,” said Liberty City pastor Richard Dunn II, a former Miami city commissioner. “It's starting to look just like the other stuff has looked in the black community.”

Michael Hernández, a Gimenez spokesman, defended the mayor Wednesday while saying the county is unable to comment on the project’s status due to a cone of silence that by law remains in place until Gimenez recommends a developer to county commissioners.

“This has been an inclusive, collaborative and very transparent process from the beginning,” he said in a statement.

That may be true. But Gimenez’s Liberty Sqaure Rising has also been a lightning rod almost since he first announced plans in February to leverage $74 million in county funds to attract private investment to Liberty City. Much of the money would serve as funding for a redevelopment of Liberty Square, where more than 600 families live in a community plagued by violence and persistent poverty.

The concept is touchy. The county’s last major housing-project redevelopment in the community ended with hundreds of Scott Carver residents put out of their homes, never to return. The project has also been dogged by black leaders like the Urban League’s T. Willard Fair, who says Gimenez’s vision is short-sighted and ill-suited to benefit the black community.

But the biggest complication yet came when nine voting members of a committee tasked with recommending a development team to Gimenez publicly scored six proposals. Seven members gave Related Urban Development Group the top score, and an eighth member scored the developer second. But Sara Alvin-Smith — the lone resident of Liberty Square on the committee — drew scrutiny when she scored Related a 64 out of a possible 155 points, and gave Atlantic Pacific an impossible 198.

When asked to clarify and justify her scores, Smith, the president of the Liberty Square tenants association, revised her Atlantic Pacific score and said other development teams had performed poorly on other projects around Miami-Dade. She singled out Related Urban president Albert Milo Jr. as someone who’d irked her.

“As far as [Related], Albert Milo and all of that, coming into my community with a bunch of people playing like they were residents in Liberty Square, which they weren't....” she said, tapering off. “I felt they were not the right developers in this community at this time.”

Before the meeting ended, public housing director Michael Liu said the committee chairwoman’s decision to seek a legal review for an outlier scoring sheet wasn’t merely a judgment call, but a matter of law. ”It's not a matter of something she has any discretion over. I just want to clarify that.”

The matter of Smith’s scoring sheet is as much a political problem as it is mathematical. Keep Smith’s scores, and the committee will suggest that Gimenez recommend Atlantic Pacific to the county commission. Take her scores out, and Related Urban Development Group is the clear winner. Dismiss Smith, and the county risks disenfranchising the residents of Liberty Square and the black community, and possibly generate bid protests or lawsuits.

Still, neither Gimenez nor county commissioners are bound to the committee’s scoring. Eric Thompson, a community organizer who wrote a letter of support for Atlantic Pacific, said it would be best for the county to move forward somehow.

”If you have to throw her score out, then throw it out and let’s move on,” he said. “Don’t hold up the process.”

As everyone waits for Gimenez’s administration to act, politics are only becoming more complicated. Gimenez, for one, is now just months from an election to hold onto his seat. And his administration is also weighing an argument by Related Urban that Atlantic Pacific’s bid should be thrown out entirely.

Meanwhile, county Commissioner Barbara Jordan has introduced legislation seeking an investigation into all county-funded affordable projects that involved Carlisle Development Group. If that’s approved, it could prove problematic for Atlantic Pacific, which created the entity bidding on Liberty Square in 2013 when it purchased Carlisle’s affordable development arm.

Carlisle sold while under investigation for tax credit fraud. The name of former Carlisle CEO Matthew Greer, who pleaded guilty in September, appears two dozen times in Atlantic Pacific’s bid submittal.

Despite all the complications, Hernandez said the county wants to move the process forward.

“Mayor Gimenez and his administration look forward to finalizing the process,” he said, “so that the redevelopment of Liberty Square can begin.”

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