Land Grab

Why would some vacant property in dirt-poor, dysfunctional Opa-Locka lead to all-out war?

Michael Wohl was in Las Vegas when Reuben La Brado called with the bad news. The owners of a piece of prime real estate the Miami developer wanted to buy had just voted to go with another offer. And not just any offer, but one tendered by a rival developer whose principals had once worked with Wohl. At this point it was April 11, 2002, and Wohl was looking at a year's work and millions of dollars the project would have meant -- down the drain. All because La Brado and his buddy Armando Escobar couldn't deliver the votes they'd promised. Wohl was, by his own recollection, "apoplectic" with rage.

"What did you do next?" a lawyer asked him a few months later during a deposition.

"Had a drink," replied the developer.

Alex Barrera
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site
Steve Satterwhite
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site

"After that?" the lawyer continued.

"Had another drink," Wohl answered, explaining that he was "so pissed with everybody" he didn't even want to talk to them about how his carefully laid plan had been seemingly hijacked at the last minute. And sometime after that, Wohl got even.

The words "prime real estate" and Opa-locka are not usually linked. Yet here in this tiny, impoverished city in northern Miami-Dade County is where the coveted land lies. Just west of the city's eastern edge on NW Seventeenth Avenue, the property comprises about 40 acres, most of which is actually underwater, part of a lake created decades ago from an abandoned rock quarry. Ironically what makes the property so valuable is its location in one of the poorest small cities in the state. The poverty rate in this city of about 15,000 people is 35 percent, and the per capita income is $9538 (according to U.S. Census figures for 1999).

Because of this, all sorts of federal, state, and local programs target Opa-locka for affordable housing, job creation, and other forms of economic stimulation. Mostly this occurs by providing a combination of subsidies, loans, and tax incentives to developers to encourage them to build there. Particularly savvy developers who are adept at navigating the myriad public agencies offering these funds can actually build major projects worth millions in profits almost entirely with public money, thus reducing their investment risk to pennies on the dollar. This was the case with the property lusted after by Michael Wohl, president of Pinnacle Housing Group, one of the largest affordable-housing developers in the state. But there was a problem. Somebody else got there first.

Pinnacle's corporate roster also includes chairman Louis Wolfson III, senior vice president Mitchell Friedman (a former county capital financing and development director), and executive vice president David Deutch. In the six years the company has existed, Pinnacle has become a major player in the somewhat murky world of affordable housing, garnering tens of millions of dollars in public funds from the state, county, and various municipalities to build a dozen projects. The company and its subsidiaries and affiliated companies also routinely give generously to political campaigns at all levels of government, from the tiny town of El Portal on up.

This is hardly unusual, as some of Pinnacle's competitors operate in similar fashion. But it does cause observers to reflect on the strange nature of this business the public subsidizes. "Affordable housing is like this subterranean ATM -- and only a few people know the PIN number," quips Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami now representing the owners of the 40 acres in a lawsuit against Pinnacle.

Michael Wohl is a short, bespectacled 53-year-old with wiry, reddish-brown hair and a bald spot in back. A round belly rides low and easy on his stocky hips. He's been in real estate nearly all his adult life, scion of a family with holdings in New York and South Florida. His manner in public meetings is pleasant, accommodating, and occasionally even obsequious. Those who've gone up against him in private, however, allege that Wohl's style can swing rapidly toward the profane -- especially when there's money on the table. "At first we couldn't figure it out, why he was so persistent about getting this property," explains Marcelo Ali, one of the owners of the 40 acres. "This property is worth tens of millions of dollars to Pinnacle in the long run. All of it, of course, public money. We're sitting on a gold mine."

Wohl wanted the property because it was adjacent to a smaller piece of land his company had optioned to purchase with the intention of building Serenity Lakes, a complex of 102 low-income apartments. Wohl's idea was to expand the project -- and the profits -- by combining properties. Both would be eligible for millions in subsidies and tax incentives. His roughly fourteen acres on the lake (only about six were dry land) were easily worth ten million dollars alone, and probably more than twice that if paired with the land next door.

But in mid-2001 the property was bought by backers of a small construction company based in Doral, which intended to build moderately priced townhouses that would be rent-to-own or sold directly. The company, called Fortex, was owned and operated chiefly by the Ali family, two brothers and a sister. Marcelo Ali, a commercial pilot, put up almost one-third of the $1.3 million purchase price. The rest was covered by two investors, Armando Escobar and his partner, Reuben La Brado. The pair had a number of businesses, mostly related to providing temporary employment services. They met the Alis when Grace Ali, who manages the company's day-to-day affairs, began renting office space from La Brado.

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