Mission Man

Miami's Downtown commissioner is still fighting, and still hopeful of big change

Johnny Winton hasn't solved many of the mysteries inside Miami government in his two and a half years as city commissioner, but the little man with a quick tongue and a big vision has at least started to unravel a few. Like that of the city's grimy, tattered old downtown, ever languishing in its hodgepodge of discount and dollar stores, decaying facades, and chainlink parking lots.

"Does this look attractive to you?" the stocky, 52-year-old, annoyed New Mexico native asks while his black four-door Cadillac SUV lumbers up Miami Avenue, the foundation of the white Bank of America skyscraper in his rearview mirror. "Look at the fucking sidewalks! There's red paint all over them, yellow paint all over them, steel plates all over the goddam place. Ugly patches all over the roads. Storefronts that look like shit. And that's been a huuuuge frustration for me ... we all talk about how important downtown is, but we never get any money earmarked for [it]."

He has learned, however, that despite complacent administrators and lackadaisical code enforcers, change still seems possible. Last September Winton proposed the city sell municipal bonds in order to generate the cash required to give Miami's pockmarked countenance a contemporary face-lift. His fellow commissioners backed him up and in November, by a 56-to-41-percent margin, voters authorized the city to issue $255 million in bonds to pay for improvements in roadways and parks. In the coming months, amazingly, the city should be spending ten million dollars of that to improve the downtown avenues, sidewalks, and storefronts that make Winton cuss so much.

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
"This is how we promote our downtown," Winton grumbles about the parking lot wasteland
Steve Satterwhite
"This is how we promote our downtown," Winton grumbles about the parking lot wasteland

But hasn't Miami issued bonds before? "Yeah," Winton snarls. "Remember they used to float bonds back in the good ol' days when you had [former city manager] Cesar Odio fucking everything up, when they would float bonds and use them on general fund stuff instead of capital stuff? They got pissed away."

No mystery there. Winton studied this chapter of dysfunctional city-building long before becoming a commissioner. Had some of the bond money Odio controlled been used on an urban face-lift back in the early Nineties, it would have attracted entrepreneurs and corporations with shiny new commercial and architectural projects. As a result they would in turn have sent millions of additional dollars to the Miami government in the form of tax revenue. And much of the city might not look as sad as it does.

Since his election, however, the brash commissioner has learned anew that owing to a historical lack of planning and foresight by those who rule in Miami's halls of municipal power, obstacles arise at almost every turn. He's not referring only to the long line of orange plastic barricades that come into view as he hangs a left onto NW Third Street, the ones forming a perimeter around the old and new U.S. courthouses and the Federal Detention Center. "You've got the federal government that's now formally taken over our goddam streets since 9/11. So instead of having two lanes around here now you have one." The barricades fit right in with the construction-dig design scheme that utility companies had been randomly providing downtown long before last September.

Winton continues west to the intersection of NW Third Street and NW First Avenue and halts. At his left is a boarded-up ramshackle storefront; up ahead, in the shadows of the Metrorail line and Stephen P. Clark Government Center, lies a vast spread of dumpy parking lots adorned with curtain after curtain of rusty chainlink fencing. "They're leased to the county," he explains. "And look at 'em. Look at 'em. It's a disgrace! Chainlink fence, weeds growing up all over the place. It's just an absolute damn disgrace. And if you get over there in that neck of the woods by the county building itself, the landscaping is atrocious. The grass is a bed of weeds instead of a bed of grass."

The big SUV curves north onto NW First Avenue, then stops in a yellow-lined median area. "I've got to make a phone call," the commissioner says. He dials up his assistant at city hall, Jason Walker, and asks him to call Patty Castro, administrator of the downtown office of the Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET). As such she manages code inspectors who work in that area. "Ask her what kind of code enforcement issues are going on with the parking lots," Winton instructs into his cell phone. "I'm downtown. You know, all those parking lots immediately east of Metrorail. Ask her what kind of code enforcement issues she has going with these properties. And ask her that question innocently. Because if you ask it innocently she's probably going to tell you, 'Oh, none.' But if you say, 'Have you cited them?' there's no telling what she might think up. Because my guess is it's going to be nothing. And if you look at these parking lots, particularly the ones closest to Fifth -- it's a fucking disgrace. Okay? Thanks."

He drives north, passing the old Miami Arena to the right and another, more pristine parking lot surrounded by a chainlink fence on the left. "At least it's relatively clean," he says of the lot. "It at least has some shrubbery around the edge." The commissioner thinks the city should ban chainlink fences downtown. "In fact we ought to do with parking lots here what Teele did in Overtown. And I'll go show you."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets