Vote Yes for Liberty Square Rising

Miami-Dade commissioners vote Wednesday on replacing these existing homes with a new project called Liberty Square Rising.
Miami-Dade commissioners vote Wednesday on replacing these existing homes with a new project called Liberty Square Rising. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Every vote by the Miami-Dade Commission is important, but some are more important than others. And a few are downright critical. Like the one today on Liberty Square Rising.

That’s the ambitious and expensive ($307 million) plan to tear down and rebuild Liberty Square, Miami’s oldest public housing project. It’s a decrepit, dangerous, crime-plagued place that’s well past its due date. It was built 80 years ago — during FDR’s New Deal! — and for decades has been pretty much been an incubator of despair, poverty and hopelessness. And, yes, crime.

Now, there’s an opportunity to change that by building a vibrant, livable and safe public-, workforce- and affordable-housing complex with a host of ancillary amenities that people in any other neighborhood would expect. Like a brand-name grocery store, restaurants and retail shops —which Liberty City has lacked for decades, since the McDuffie riots in 1980.

Miami-Dade County has tried, fitfully, to be a good landlord at Liberty Square and most residents have tried, fitfully, to be good tenants. But this is a tough, downtrodden, crime-ridden neighborhood and the roughly 2,000 people who currently live in Liberty Square exist in what would be described charitably as a dilapidated slum. Locals call it “Pork ‘n’ Beans.” I call it shameful. We can do better.

The item before commissioners today — 8K2, on the agenda if you care to look more closely — is a resolution picking Related Urban Development Group as the Liberty Square developer.

Just getting the project to a vote before the commission has been a huge challenge. The long and contentious selection process has been questioned by many, most notably Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. “I’ve been for this project from the beginning,” says Edmonson, who represents the Liberty City area, “but they’ve turned this into a circus.”

It’s not entirely clear who “they” are, but most likely Edmonson’s referring to the competing developers, particularly Related Urban Development Group, the low-income housing component of Jorge Perez’s Related Group. With so much at stake, both companies have resorted to some underhanded, high-pressure tactics. Both hired some former politicians (onetime Miami Comm. Michelle Spence-Jones is “consulting” for Related) along with an assortment of preachers and community activists to plead their case and knock the other side. Some participants are no doubt sincere; others are simply lining their pockets. But, hey, that’s how business is done in Miami.

Big ticket items that come before the commission normally rise or fall on the recommendation of the district commissioner. That means what happens today will depend to a large degree on what Comm. Edmonson says during the discussion and how she votes. She says it was only at her insistence that today’s vote even got on the agenda. “I just want to get it before the BCC (Board of County Commissioners) for a vote,” she says, “It’s been hard.”

For months out in the community and on this page in April, Edmonson questioned the fairness of the developer selection process. She charged that Liberty Square residents were excluded or ignored. Edmonson initially sided with Atlantic Pacific Companies, which builds low-income housing. They ranked first in the early round of voting by the 9-member selection committee, but the tally was thrown off by an impossibly high score for AP from Sara Smith, president of the Liberty Square Tenant Council. Scores were recalculated and produced essentially a run-off.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez then called for Atlantic Pacific and Related to submit “best and final offers.” That set off a no-holds-barred struggle to win the Liberty Square Rising contract. Related came back with a significantly improved plan and won the nod from the selection committee and a Yes recommendation from the mayor.

For Gimenez, today’s vote on Liberty Square Rising could be a milestone — and an important marker in his re-election campaign. The vote is a referendum of sorts on Gimenez’s commitment to not just revitalizing Liberty City, but also to his vision of what social and economic changes are needed by Miami’s black community. “This is basically about economic development,” says Ron Frasier, an architect who runs BAC Funding, which will administer a revolving $1 million loan fund to help capitalize black contractors, engineers and architects hired to work on Liberty Square Rising. “Sure it’s about housing,” Frasier says, “but this is also about economic development and black businesses being part of what’s developed.”

It’s hard to see why Gimenez’s recommendation of Related would be rejected today. The selection process has been tortuous and complex, but thoughtful, too. Liberty Square residents and their neighbors will have priority in being hired for construction jobs and later in the completed project.

Liberty Square residents are impatient for the work to begin and who can blame them?. “We want things to change around here,” says Sara Smith of the Liberty Square Tenant Council. “I’m hoping for a unanimous vote on Wednesday.”

Me too, Sara, me too.