From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Just when a forlorn section of Liberty City is about to get the help it so desperately needs, along comes Miller Dawkins on his political bulldozer

Despite the unpolished plans, Miller Dawkins showed a strong interest in Levine's proposal. Notes on file in the commissioner's office indicate that he told the Fort Lauderdale developers he could get them nine million dollars in grant money to construct new homes. (The amount actually requested would drop to $4.7 million.) According to city commission minutes, he also handpicked the nonprofit they should work with: the Urban League of Greater Miami, and his ally T. Willard Fair.

City housing officials also took a preliminary look at the project, and calculated Miami's role more conservatively than Dawkins did. "Our initial recommendation from a staff point of view was to fund half of what they wanted," explains Jeff Hepburn, assistant director of housing. "Their initial request was $4.7 million and we recommended $2.3 million. Normally how these things go is, we give you a little bit, you get a little bit from the state and a little bit from the county so you can go to banks and say, 'We have all this money, why don't you lend us some more?'"

Hepburn and his staff presented their views at the September 1995 city commission meeting, proposing a resolution that called for the newly formed partnership between Levine and the Urban League to receive $50,000 to test the soil for contamination, with $2.3 million to be earmarked for release if the partnership obtained matching grants.

Dawkins waved off the resolution as it had been written. He wanted to give the partnership $4.7 million immediately -- even though the developers were still arguing over what kind of houses should be built (Levine wanted townhouses; the Urban League didn't think they'd sell).

Rather than settle the spat through further research, Dawkins proposed a novel solution: He wanted to give the developers a few million dollars to see whether the project would work. If not, then the partners could spend the remaining millions somewhere else. "I would like to move...that the Urban League and [Levine] be instructed to go to the [city] manager, develop townhouses with the two million we're going to give them, and hold the other two million in reserve," Dawkins orated that day. "After they build and sell the first phase for two million, we will know if townhouses will sell or if they won't. If they won't, you take the second two million and build what they want to build."

Only Victor De Yurre raised a serious objection. The real estate attorney switched on his microphone to plead for caution. "How are we going to sell this?" he asked. "And what is it going to be based on? Do we have feasibility studies? Do we know what the market area is?"

Dawkins, who had raised many similar questions about the Tacolcy project, cut De Yurre off. "We are there!" he thundered. "We are there, where we're going!"

The resolution that passed, after much further discussion, mirrored Hepburn's original resolution, with only $50,000 awarded. But Dawkins insisted that this published motion did not match the motion he had put forth, and in December he moved that the record be corrected to award the Urban League and Levine the full $4.7 million, plus the $50,000 start-up fee.

At that meeting, Commissioner J.L. Plummer repeated many of the concerns voiced three months earlier by De Yurre, who had since been voted out of office. "Four million dollars is a lot of money. What does the city have in hand to designate what's going to be built?" Plummer queried, sounding eerily like Dawkins had in July of 1994. "I have not seen the final designs....Have we guaranteed the rates that will be charged? Have we got any kind of bidding procedure that must be followed?"

Cesar Odio piped up. The city manager is not permitted to make policy decisions; he may only implement the will of the commissioners. But in this case, he decided he had something to offer. "Can I say something, Commissioner Plummer? This is in an area -- I went out and looked at it the other night -- next to the new high school, next to an industrial area. If we do this, we're bringing people back to live in this area," he said, "and it's a beautiful project." He made no mention of the involvement of his brother and brother-in-law.

Notwithstanding Plummer's skepticism, every commissioner voted in favor of Dawkins's corrected resolution.

"My concern was, here was this group -- what track record do they have?" complains De Yurre today from his Brickell Avenue law office. "They were supposed to do a study, and based on that study it would be determined if the project were feasible or not. You don't just start building and hope the buyers come along. You get the buyers first and start building.

"You know where that money is going to go? It is going to go to total waste. You can't just turn over money like that to people. It is totally unconscionable."

Problems with the new project arose almost immediately. The purchase date was set for Friday, December 15, 1995. A day before the closing, Jeff Hepburn sent a letter to the Urban League noting that the most basic of matters had not yet been resolved. The developers had not had the property appraised, for instance, and they were intending to pay for the land with grants for which they had not completed the applications. The closing was bumped back three weeks, to January 8 of this year.

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