In Takenna Melton’s living room, a large swath of splotchy black mold stretches wall to wall behind a faded brown couch.
In the bathroom, hot water sprays round the clock from a broken shower that won’t turn off. Outside, burrows around the edge of Building 5 serve as entry points for the rats the family says sometimes crawl into their unit.
For Melton and her daughters, and scores more families living in public housing at Liberty Square, this is home — for now.
“It’s time for a change,” says Melton, 37.
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Like so many others at Liberty Square, Melton is eager to see what will happen Wednesday, when county commissioners vote on a $307 million redevelopment project that would bring sweeping improvements to the county’s largest and oldest public housing complex, built back in 1937.
Specifically, Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants the commission to affirm his selection of Related Group’s affordable housing arm as the developer of the new Liberty Square project and allow him to execute ground leases and a development agreement that considers a project with 1,572 new public housing and market-rate units. Together, Gimenez and Related believe they can turn 57 acres of substandard housing off Northwest 62nd Street into a thriving community that rejects the persistent poverty and violence that have plagued Liberty Square.
“The New Liberty Square will be a legacy development that will be long remembered by future generations of Miamians as the model for community transformation,” Related CEO Jorge Pérez said in a statement.
But for months, the debate over whether to approve the proposal has been about more than just dollars and units, or even possible benefits. Rather, Gimenez’s Liberty Square Rising project has been bogged down by allegations and mired in politics.
The New Liberty Square will be a legacy development that will be long remembered by future generations of Miamians as the model for community transformation
Related CEO Jorge Pérez
Launched last summer, the process of selecting a developer dragged on for months and ended only after a second round of bidding in which Related Urban Development Group leapfrogged a competitor and took first place. Afterward, a group of clergymen accused Gimenez of slanting the county’s selection process to favor Related Group, one of the mayor’s biggest campaign donors, over competitor Atlantic Pacific Communities.
And when a county committee weighed the project in May, allegations flew on both sides that special favors and cash were used to curry support in the community. County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents Liberty City, pushed unsuccessfully to force Gimenez to negotiate a parallel development proposal with Atlantic Pacific, which is still chasing the contract for the project.
The developer selection for Liberty Square Rising has been portrayed as a ‘done deal’ for months, but in fact depends entirely on the commission’s vote
Atlantic Pacific spokeswoman Jessica Wade Pfeffer
“The developer selection for Liberty Square Rising has been portrayed as a ‘done deal’ for months, but in fact depends entirely on the commission’s vote,” said Atlantic Pacific spokeswoman Jessica Wade Pfeffer.
Edmonson has said she doesn’t want to slow down the project, and believes Related submitted a quality plan. But she nevertheless has been perturbed by the way Gimenez pushed and pursued the redevelopment and marketed Related’s proposal to her community. She declined to comment Tuesday through an office spokesman, who said “she’s just trying to avoid this all being played out through the media.”
Some residents at Liberty Square say they’re concerned Edmonson — for whom Atlantic Pacific recently named a public housing project on Seventh Avenue — will fight Gimenez and slow down investment in their neighborhood. Members of the Liberty Square Resident Council called a press conference last week in order to pressure the commissioner to back the project and speed the development of better housing.
It’s been decades since anything has been put into this community
Sara Alvin Smith, Liberty Square Resident Council president
“We deserve it,” said council president Sara Alvin Smith, who as a member of the county’s selection committee once heavily supported Atlantic Pacific. “It's been decades since anything has been put into this community.”
If commissioners approve the proposal before them Wednesday, they’ll be supporting two 75-year ground leases that would give Related control over Liberty Square and Lincoln Gardens, a nearby vacant site at 4701 NW 24th Ct. that would also be developed as part of the project. Of the total 1,572 units, Related has offered to build 757 public housing units across both sites.
The developer has also offered to build new community centers, a health center, an early childhood education center, shops, and in the final phase of the project, a grocery store. In order to avoid moving anyone out of Liberty Square during construction, Related plans to renovate about 70 uninhabitable apartments and move families in the first construction phase to these new units as opposed to off-site.
Nathaniel Wilcox, president of the nonprofit People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, said it’s past time to improve conditions at Liberty Square. Wilcox, who also sat on the county’s developer selection committee, compared the current fighting over who wins the redevelopment project to the riots that destroyed so much of inner city Miami in the 1980s.
“It's basically a slum. The county has its own slum,” he said about Liberty Square. “The issue is how do we fix it? Not how do we burn it down.”