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

As 1997 drew to a close, Bloomberg's plans for adjoining retail/office buildings at the northern extreme of South Beach seemed to be coming together nicely. His extensive renovation of the historic Palm Court was under way; he had drawn up plans for a complex of retail stores and offices across the street, with the Ablon property providing parking for both of those buildings. In a delightful bit of tired jargon, Bloomberg says he was on the brink of "creating my own synergy" in the neighborhood, hastening its eventual renaissance.

After his December 1997 meeting with Mooney, though, he realized that his plans were on a collision course with the city.

The city's eagerness to approve the ballet building irked him for two financial reasons. First the proposed building obstructed Palm Court's views of Collins Park and the beach. Second, it forced him to shrink his buildable square footage on the Chevron lot.

But what really ticked him off, he says, was the principle of the thing, the fact that city officials had rubber-stamped an application that he saw as clearly substandard. The city even went so far as to defer the ballet's parking-impact fees. Having gone through the design-review process himself, Bloomberg knew a double standard was in effect.

In December he filed an appeal of the ballet's Design Review Board (DRB) approval with the "special master," an administrative judge specifically charged with overseeing DRB decisions. His attorney in that matter, Stanley Price, has handled the case from the outset. In April 1998 the special master rejected the appeal, ruling that he didn't have jurisdiction over Bloomberg's specific complaints. Price took the appeal to the next step: a lawsuit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court.

The central issue in the appeal was that, at the time the DRB approved the project, the city did not own the property upon which the ballet was to be built. "To this day, and it's been almost a year, no one ever answered me how the city can just overlook a falsified affidavit [of ownership]," Price relates. "That's the whole problem here: The city feels like the end justifies the means. I'm in favor of the ballet, too. I'd like to see it there, but just apply the same rules to them as you do to my client or any other property owner."

City administrators concede that the city had not finalized its ownership of all of the land for the ballet building at the time of its DRB approval on November 4, 1997. The city owned half of it: A surface parking lot at the corner of Park Avenue and 22nd Street. The other necessary land included the parking lot for the Onyx nightclub at Liberty Avenue and 22nd Street, and part of the so-called fruit stand parcel at Liberty Avenue and 23rd Street. Still, city staff insist they didn't need to actually own the property.

"We processed and accepted the application to the DRB without owning it," Assistant City Manager Janet Gavarrete allows. "But it was in the works. I think it's important to note that numerous commission actions validated the fact that we were going to own it."

In fact contained in Bloomberg's suit is a memo from Gavarrete to redevelopment coordinator Marla Dumas. In it she notes that an affidavit of ownership is a requirement for DRB approval. But, she adds, "We know that it will be impossible to obtains [sic] such affidavit from the owner, and since the Commission has by Resolution instructed the Administration to acquire by purchase or eminent domain such land for a Cultural Center, this official City action is sufficiently acceptable to [Planning Director] Dean [Grandin] to serve as an 'affidavit' pending acquisition of course."

Price doesn't find that anywhere near sufficiently acceptable. "If I said, 'Dean, I don't own this property, but I'll probably own it a year from now; can I get my plan approved?' he'd laugh me out of the room."

The ballet wrangle, though, was just the beginning of Bloomberg's battles with the city. Soon after he filed his appeal, he got a call from Dumas. "She asked if I owned the Chevron and Ablon properties. I said, 'Why?' And she said, 'Well, the city has authorized eminent domain on your properties, and we need to make sure you're the owner of those properties.' I said, 'What does that mean?' She said, 'Oh, cities have the right to take properties through eminent domain.' I said, 'What do you mean, "take properties?" I have plans. I'm working on things right now.'"

Dumas confirms calling Bloomberg, as she called everyone else who had any interest in the six lots the city was targeting for eminent domain.

Sure enough in January 1998, the city's RDA filed an eminent domain lawsuit to take the Ablon parcel. A suit over the Chevron lot followed that March. The city appraised the Chevron lot at $580,000, the Ablon lot, $430,000. No chump change, but compared with what he stood to make building upon and leasing out those properties in such an up-and-coming area, Bloomberg says, it seemed like a lowball.

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