Redevelopment, flooding among issues in Miami District 2 commission race

Miami’s District 2 hugs the city’s waterfront from Coconut Grove to Morningside. Four candidates are running to represent the area.
Miami’s District 2 hugs the city’s waterfront from Coconut Grove to Morningside. Four candidates are running to represent the area. Miami Herald File

The race to represent Miami’s waterfront communities is highlighting issues that reflect concerns across the city, ranging from potholes to climate change, from making it easier to get building permits to combating a housing market that is making the city’s urban core unaffordable to many residents.

Some challenges are more acute in swaths of District 2, which stretches from Coconut Grove to Morningside. In the face of sea level rise, low-lying coastal areas include some of the most vulnerable real estate in Miami-Dade County. The district has some of the city’s tallest, most dense development — potentially fertile ground for mixed-income housing. District 2 is also home to some of the oldest, most historic neighborhoods in the city, and development pressures are already transforming streets in these areas.

The election will help define the future of this district as its voters select their representative, who has one of five votes on the City Commission. Incumbent Commissioner Ken Russell faces three challengers: real estate broker Jim Fried, businesswoman Rosy Palomino and real estate agent Javier Gonzalez.

The district has a mix of some of the city’s toniest ZIP codes and low-income areas undergoing gentrification. Downtown’s residential and nightlife sector is growing, occupying a larger space next to Brickell’s existing financial district. In the Village West neighborhood of Coconut Grove, a historically Bahamian enclave, fears abound over how redevelopment will change the area.

A consortium of Grove neighborhood groups hosted a candidate debate this week, which Russell, Fried and Gonzalez attended. Palomino was absent. The three candidates were asked about their positions on development in the Grove, from proposed changes to the local building regulations to the possible expansion of a community redevelopment agency (CRA), to keep tax dollars inside the neighborhood.

District 2 candidate Jim Fried, participates in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats on Wednesday, October 2, 2019. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Fried, who joined the race in early September, criticized the use of such anti-blight agencies. He said he opposed Russell’s pitch to include the West Grove in the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency because he believes the agency is a “place where things don’t happen right.

“This is not the right approach,” he said. “What has to happen in Miami is the CRAs need to be eliminated because all they are is a center for fraud and waste. We need a direct block-by-block, house-by-house approach to make sure that the legacy of the people that grew up and live in Coconut Grove is available 100 years from now — and it can be done by the private sector.”

Russell defended the community redevelopment agency concept, saying he campaigned against such agencies when he first ran in 2015 because they needed the kind of reform he said he has introduced to the Omni redevelopment agency, which he chairs. Russell argued that if managed correctly, CRAs can produce new affordable housing units and revitalize neighborhoods.

He touted the restoration of the D.A. Dorsey Memorial Library in Overtown as an appropriate project for a redevelopment agency that was completed under his watch. The building was in serious disrepair before the project.

“Roofless. Burnt,” he said. “It’s beautiful now, and it’s got a community center.”

Javier Gonzalez participates in the debate as candidates for Miami’s District 2 gathered for the forum inside the Frankie Shannon Rolle Community Resource Center at Coconut Grove Village West on Monday, October 6, 2019. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Gonzalez said a community redevelopment agency does not make sense for Coconut Grove because the area does not have slums or blight, and it takes tax dollars away from the rest of the city.

“It takes money that can go through the whole city and puts it in one area,” he said.

One redevelopment approach that was met with unanimous disapproval by the three candidates: the value of opportunity zones, or federally qualified areas where capital gains are sheltered from taxes, thereby spurring reinvestment in blighted neighborhoods. They all described the idea as tax incentives without oversight.

Related to the look and feel of the district’s neighborhoods are the costs of living in them. Miami faces a housing affordability crisis that touches the whole city, including the towers being erected in District 2’s urban core and the lower-slung sections of Coconut Grove.

The District 2 commissioner will play a role in implementing or disregarding recommendations that will be proposed in the city’s affordable housing master plan, a document being developed by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center.

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Miami’s District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, who’s seeking reelection, participates in a forum hosted by Downtown Democrats on Wednesday, October 2, 2019. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Bubbling under the issues of housing and development is the threat of rising seas. Gonzalez said before tackling the issue on a massive scale, local government needs to examine the problems with water expelled into Biscayne Bay.

“The first step we should look at is our plumbing throughout the city and county, because we’re killing our bay,” he said, referencing multiple closures of local beaches due to feces and bacteria in the water.

More important than the damage and inconvenience caused by water that rises into the streets on the highest tides of the year, Russell said, is the chilling effect those images can have on the real estate market, on people’s ability to insure their homes and on the willingness to invest in waterfront property. Russell said he’s seen investment gravitate toward higher land on the Miami Rock Ridge.

“What that’s forcing is a very real thing called climate change gentrification,” Russell said. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. Sounds like a bit of a stretch. Sounds like some liberal wacko stuff. But I saw it. I’ve seen developers targeting the ridge, because they’re losing financial viability by the water.”

Fried agreed that the rising seas will push investment westward and create new development pressures, adding that preserving and expanding park space will be key to adapting to a warming world.

“There’s plumbing solutions that can be done. It’s different for every neighborhood,” he said. “We all have to work together. We’re all going to be impacted. But the number one way to easily address climate change is to save our green space.”

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.