A War of Addition

A legal battle between developer Ron Bloomberg and Beach officials over the fate of the city's cultural campus has both sides fuming

Miami Beach's politicians and bureaucrats alike pounced on the concept. "It really was a wonderful idea," Mayor Neisen Kasdin gushes. "It would create one of the most spectacular cultural venues in Florida."

The bigwigs of the ballet loved the idea, too, and in April 1997, the first rough sketch of the cultural campus was drawn. It not only showed the Bass, the library, and the ballet, but a big parking garage to the north of the ballet building.

All of these were major projects, and all involved a good chunk of public money. The augmented Bass Museum of Art, a city-owned facility, is budgeted at $8 million ($3.6 million from city coffers). The city has $11.5 million in county bond money available to build the regional library, which is still in the planning stages.

The Miami City Ballet, now in its thirteenth season, is a private nonprofit entity, but the City of Miami Beach has committed $2.5 million of public money to help build its new digs. The success of the company has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of its founder, the legendary Edward Villella. But as both the teaching and performing aspects of the company have grown in size and prestige, the ballet's Lincoln Road headquarters have become a tighter and tighter fit. Even in the early Nineties, the company knew that its need for more and better space (along with the skyrocketing rents on Lincoln Road) would eventually force them to leave the pedestrian mall. The Collins Park locale appeared to be the perfect solution.

But bringing these projects together came with an extra price: The city would have to buy up several lots of privately owned land to secure room for the ballet and library buildings.

With visions of a subtropical Lincoln Center dancing in their heads, the commission authorized city staff to begin buying the necessary property in July 1997. The city's RDA targeted six privately owned lots on the two blocks that it needed to acquire, and began filing eminent domain lawsuits.

Although eminent domain allows governmental agencies to take possession of private property, the governmental body in question has to pay for the private property it wants. In the case of the cultural campus, the city filed the type of eminent domain suit known as a "quick take." Under such proceedings the city tries to convince a judge that buying the land would serve a valid public purpose. If the judge agrees, the city assesses the value of the property in question, then deposits that amount of money in the court registry. After that the city and property owner can either negotiate a new price, or go to a jury trial, in which the jury determines the final price. Also, the city is always responsible for paying the property owner's legal fees in any eminent domain case.

For most of the lots needed for the cultural campus, the city's eminent domain cases have proceeded more or less uneventfully. In the majority of those cases the city and the property owners have settled on a selling price slightly higher than the land's assessed value. One of the owners, however, has refused to get with the program.

The suite of offices on the fourth floor of the 420 Lincoln Rd. building is spare, unfinished-looking, with whitewashed walls and exposed wiring. Even the garishness of two Leroy Neimanns and Joan Miros can't liven up Ron Bloomberg's cluttered center of operations. The developer and real estate broker, now 35 years old, sits behind his desk, tugging at his green-striped shirt with rolled-up sleeves.

His career, as he describes it, has been short but eventful. Armed with a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, the New York native was putting together commercial real estate deals for Citicorp when Aventura megadevelopers Turnberry Associates recruited him to Miami in 1991. Turnberry put him to work managing properties that had been foreclosed, including The Grand condominium across from Miami's Omni mall, and 100 Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach. "I met some commissioners, some of the other players [in Miami Beach]," he recalls, in his relentless manner. "I got my feet wet."

In 1993 he struck out on his own as a commercial real estate broker. He brokered leases ranging from the upscale eatery China Grill, to the adult-novelty store The Pleasure Emporium.

His ultimate dream was to buy and develop his own properties, and he soon snatched up a likely one: the run-down but impressively arcaded Palm Court building, two blocks north of Collins Park. "I went up and looked at it, and said, 'This is a nice property,'" he remembers. "The neighborhood needs some work, but sooner or later this neighborhood's going to come around."

Bloomberg also had his eye on the abandoned Chevron gas station across the street. Initially he signed a contract with Chevron's landlord, an Ocala retiree named Patricia Bush. When Chevron threatened to sell its long-term lease, rather than terminate it, he decided to buy out Chevron instead in August 1997.

Meanwhile his Palm Court plans had hit a minor snag: lack of parking. Bloomberg paid a $65,000 one-time parking-impact fee to the city because Palm Court didn't have any parking spaces for its eventual tenants. In hopes of getting that fee refunded, Bloomberg went after a third property in the neighborhood, at 221 22nd St., then owned by Cleveland investor Carl Ablon. By the fall of 1997, Ablon had signed a contract to sell the property to Bloomberg. Anticipating that the Ablon lot would take care of his parking needs and earn him his money back from the city, Bloomberg began planning an office building on the Chevron site.

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