By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Teele reported that whenever he meets with Sopher, the first thing the Quik Park president does is rail against the surcharge. "If you ask him what he thinks of the surcharge, he hates it," the commissioner reported. Teele admits he doesn't like it either. "The surcharge is what killed Cuomo in New York. It serves as a disincentive to investment." Teele offers another Sopher idea. The businessman would be more willing to pay the surcharge if it were designated to help finance the Performing Arts Center rather than to go into the city's general fund. "I think Sopher is a long-term player in the City of Miami who will bring a New York point of view," Teele predicted. And what does he mean by "New York"? "Big development," he replied.
New York City councilwoman Kathryn Freed has another definition. "He wants to maximize his profits," she asserted. Along with various civic groups, she has been challenging Sopher's efforts to change the zoning of two parcels of land he owns in SoHo so he can build a 160-room hotel. "He doesn't care about the neighborhood," Freed asserted. "They would be building the first small high-rise, very dense, very small unit building. There has never been any like that built in SoHo." The case is still in court. "He just didn't want to take no for an answer," Freed observed.
But Teele is optimistic. "I've been extremely impressed with what Hank Sopher has done for the City of Miami," he declared vaguely. When asked for clarification, Teele explained he was referring to the property-value inflation Sopher has caused with his speculative buys in the downtown area. "The Community Redevelopment Authority has one main goal and that is to increase property values," Teele said. Since Sopher's purchases, property assessments in the Park West area of Overtown have tripled from $25 per square foot or less to $70 per square foot, he adds. "Hank Sopher has been the General -- what's his name? -- Schwarzkopf of downtown redevelopment," raved Teele. "But that doesn't make him the president." Indeed, Echemendia, Sopher's lawyer, did entreat city manager Carlos Gimenez to grant the Quik Park president a kind of clemency during an October 13 meeting called to demand the surcharge payment. According to one participant at the meeting, Echemendia asked Gimenez to waive the penalties and interest. Gimenez refused.
While Sopher's endgame may be to control as much parking as possible, Winton, a wealthy real estate man himself, is concerned about the middle of the game. That is the period in which Sopher drives up property values and now arguably controls the future of downtown development in his extensive and expensive real estate holdings. "If he steps up and joint ventures with people to develop these sites, the city will be in good shape. If he holds off and just pushes values straight up as a speculator, that could really hurt us. And I have no idea what his ultimate game plan is. He already drove prices sky high." He's concerned Sopher's speculating could make development of badly needed middle-income residential buildings downtown impossible. To make a profit now, Winton concluded, Sopher will have to sell the parcels to developers interested in skyscrapers.
Not to worry, said Shepsman. He and Sopher have had "conversations" with national companies that do middle-income projects. "The profitability of middle-income development could still pencil," he noted. "If that's what the need is, the land pricing hasn't precluded that as a use." Shepsman assures that Quik Park is in it for the long haul. "At the end of the day we will probably own no real estate, and we will probably have a lot of parking. But that could be many days out." So people will continue supplying Sopher with those tens and twenties for outrageous parking fees. They don't have much choice, but they just might be helping Hank build a new downtown.