Miami-Dade County

Liberty Square resident at center of redevelopment controversy endorses Related Group

The proposed layout of Related Urban Development Group’s Liberty Square redevelopment project.
The proposed layout of Related Urban Development Group’s Liberty Square redevelopment project. Courtesy Related Urban Development Group

The developer seeking to redevelop Liberty Square scored a key endorsement Tuesday that could mute the noise around the proposed $307 million rebuild of Miami-Dade’s oldest and largest public housing project.

During a seniors’ breakfast, the Liberty Square Resident Council announced its support of Related Urban Development Group’s plans to raze the outdated “Pork n’ Beans” and rebuild it as a mixed-income community. The endorsement came just days ahead of a possible May 12 hearing before the county’s Economic and Prosperity Committee that, according to county officials, could send the project to a final vote by county commissioners or halt it in its tracks.

“What we’re asking is that all the commissioners agree and support the residents and community over here, to let the transition keep going smoothly,” said council president Sara Smith. “We’re asking that they respect the wishes of the residents and the resident council.”

By landing the support of the group that represents the more than 600 families living in Liberty Square’s row houses, Related Urban can now tout the backing of the community. But arguably just as important, the developer has mended relations with Smith, whose previous support for a competitor became the fulcrum for allegations that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez “disrespected” Liberty City when choosing a developer.

We’re asking that they respect the wishes of the residents and the resident council.

Sara Smith, Liberty City Resident Council president

Those criticisms began back in October, after Smith’s scores as a member of a developer selection committee became the subject of controversy. Smith, the only committee member from Liberty Square, gave high scores to affordable builder Atlantic Pacific Communities that were mathematically impossible and could have helped the developer land Gimenez’s endorsement. But a legal review ensued; it ended with Gimenez asking Related Urban and Atlantic Pacific to submit updated plans.

Upon a second review by the same committee, including Smith, Related Urban’s new plan scored first place, won Gimenez’s recommendation — and escalated allegations that Gimenez did all he could to give the project to Related, a major campaign contributor.

Amplifying those criticisms, district County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, for whom Atlantic Pacific named a nearby affordable housing project Friday, has argued that Gimenez “silenced” Liberty City’s voice in the way he handled Smith’s scores. But that issue now appears moot following a memorandum of understanding between Related Urban and the resident council that includes commitments to work on job placement and home ownership.

“I was pulled in two different directions. I have friends on the Atlantic Pacific side and friends on the Related Urban side. But in the end it’s not about me or my friends, it’s about the residents and this community,” Smith said about the controversy and her support of Related Urban’s project. “We have a good redevelopment plan.”

We’re going to focus on the people.

Albert Milo, Related Urban Development Group principal

Smith on Tuesday also downplayed allegations she made in a March 1 email to county officials that lobbyist Dante Starks — currently a subject in a public corruption investigation in Opa-locka — visited Liberty Square on behalf of Related Urban early this year. She said she’s since learned that Starks isn’t working with Related Urban nor any of its partners on the project.

Related Urban principal Albert Milo said the increased support is due to a better understanding of what’s planned thanks to weekly meetings at Liberty Square and a door-to-door campaign to explain crucial details, like the fact that no one will be forced to leave during redevelopment. It’s an effort he says has been assisted by former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who he said is part of a team that has helped explain the details of the project.

“Every week as we continue to meet, we continue to enhance our community benefits program and work with the residents council to address the community’s needs,” he said. “We’re going to focus on the people in this community.”