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Then came the commercial land binge that made him the most powerful vacant-lot holder in downtown Miami. In early 1999 Sopher bought one downtown parcel for about three million dollars. He grabbed another for almost two million dollars, one at 951 NW Second Ave. for $975,000, another at 700 Biscayne Blvd. for about $11 million, an office building at 550 Brickell Ave. for $9.75 million, and the Howard Johnson's Motor Inn at 1100 Biscayne Blvd. for $6.75 million. In February of this year Sopher grabbed the rest of a block, of which he already owned half, on Biscayne Boulevard at Ninth and Tenth streets for $6.2 million. That was about $165 per square foot, considered a record for the boulevard. The stakes were now extremely high. To make a profit Sopher needs major developers interested in building high-rise buildings in Miami's downtown wasteland to buy it from him.
In the meantime he received a steady infusion of cash from sports fans and members of the downtown work force who needed somewhere to park. "He saw this is as a good way to make a profit on real estate but in the end control parking," explained Shepsman, RSVP's managing director. (RSVP's parent company is Reckson Associates Realty, a firm that owns dozens of office buildings in the New York City area). "His endgame is to have the parking," Shepsman said. Sopher's strategy is to sell the lots to developers but keep control of the garage in whatever building goes up.
Sopher also wanted parking operations in buildings that are already standing. In 1998, after federal antitrust litigation forced several other parking companies to divest some operations, Quik Park won the garage lease in a downtown office building at 150 SE Second Ave. The property happened to be owned by Commissioner Winton's company, Wynco Realty Partners. Winton had a good impression of Sopher. The Quik Park president had sent him a $500 check to help in his 1998 bid to oust J.L. Plummer. Here was an extraordinary chance for Sopher's company to make a good impression, especially if parking privatization was down the road.
"Oh my God, has he been a terrible operator," Winton exploded during a recent interview. "I can't stand any of his people. They're just incompetent, that's all. They don't pay attention to any detail." The biggest problem was getting routine reports on revenues. "We couldn't get the reports from them, and then when we got the reports; we couldn't figure out what the hell was really going on with our garage from an economic standpoint. And [employee] turnover was high. So we finally had to clamp down." Winton claimed he demanded that Sopher hire two managers who had supervised the garage before Quik Park.
"You talk about a guy who's making a terrible error here," observes Winton. "I would think he'd be trying to make our garage work the best of any of his parking facilities.... That's good. That puts me in a real clear position to understand how he does his work. And it's pretty lousy.
"I could have been a big supporter of theirs, frankly.... But if they're doing a lousy job for me, well they're going to do a lousy job for the city. Pretty hard to support 'em then."
When the matter of the parking surcharge came up, others were disappointed too, including Bredemeyer, the Parking Network executive. "In an industry stigmatized by the reputation of an unscrupulous few, Quik Park's failure to comply with the surcharge makes headlines," he said. "Every other large parking operation was cooperating and compliant and deserves at least a footnote."
Bredemeyer has found Quik Park managers more responsive of late. He declined to discuss details but expected to issue a report on the company's surcharge payments in December.
Despite the surcharge fiasco, Commissioner Art Teele likes most of Sopher's machinations, especially the one about turning Miami's dismal downtown into a likeness of Times Square along Biscayne Boulevard. "We both want intelligent development," Teele proclaimed during a recent interview in his Dinner Key office. He said he met Sopher at a meeting in the offices of Tew Cardenas Rebak. (One of the firm's partners is Al Cardenas, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party.) "I was pushing very hard for aesthetic improvements on vacant land," Teele said, primarily in the Park West/Overtown area. "I have raised the bar, if you will, on the landscaping of parking lots," Teele boasted. When asked what Sopher is like, Teele responded: "Totally focused on the development of his properties and the future of his properties. And extremely visionary about how to go about doing it."
The commissioner notes he and Sopher have a "mutual friend" in Charlie Gargano, a commercial developer who worked with Teele at the U.S. Department of Transportation's mass transit agency during Reagan's first term as president. Gargano later became director of New York State's Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which presided over large-scale redevelopment projects in blighted segments of Manhattan, most notably the Times Square turnaround. To pull it off the UDC orchestrated the investment of $75 million in public money to help attract more than $1.8 billion in private capital. He also promoted the creation of a five-mile waterfront development taking shape from Battery Park City to 59th Street. He now is overseeing a major renovation of Penn Station. (Gargano's own company currently is under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney for possible violations of campaign-finance laws.)