By Michael E. Miller
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Hauling his only possessions in a small red backpack, 53-year-old James Walker nods toward a needle-and-glass-dotted cement slab on the border of Overtown. Dirt is caked under his fingernails, and the whites of his eyes have turned the color of scrambled eggs. "If I were a billionaire," he says, exposing a few lonesome teeth, "I'd do somethin' good for this place. Ain't nothing but rat holes and drug dens around here."
Real estate tycoon Edward Falcone could have been that billionaire. In 2006, the reclusive but charismatic son of Italian immigrants, along with his partners, bought a seven-acre, $88.7 million patch of the hood and announced a wildly ambitious plan: Turn one of the county's most dilapidated ghettos into a dazzling, walkable stretch of shops, offices, and hotels. They soon snapped up enough land for eight Dadeland Malls.
Falcone released a futuristic master plan with a rendering that showed skyscrapers rising like a silver forest in a desert of slum. City officials swooned, calling it "a city within a city" and "one of the largest urban renewal projects in the United States."
But a slew of recent lawsuits — alleging everything from fraud to unpaid loans and broken promises — have jeopardized the project. And neighbors, building owners, and city officials say the abandoned area is worse than before.
"They have spit in the face of everyone in this neighborhood," says Brad Knoefler, a property owner. "They come down here from up North with their slick renderings and they get the ear of the mayor. But nothing ever gets better."
For Falcone, who moved to South Florida from New York, legal turmoil doesn't stop in the ghetto.
Although he has been sued at least four times in the past year over loans totaling $100 million, a recent family court battle tells the tale of the man behind a fallen real estate empire — and the glamour-versus-gutter contrast between his lifestyle and his project's home.
Court documents show the 57-year-old — who paid cash for a secluded, resort-size $43 million beachfront mansion — is trying to skirt his court-ordered child support. What's more, one of his companies just filed papers to evict his 7-year-old son and the mother of his child from their home in Wellington.
"He is thinking about how he can hurt me," says the mom, Marcela Crespo, a strikingly beautiful 39-year-old from Argentina. "But this is his son's life."
Falcone did not answer the door at his smaller waterfront mansion in Palm Beach, where pearl-white pillars back up to a glistening circular pool and rows of palm trees are lit up like a showroom. Nor did he return New Times calls seeking comment. His lawyer, Ben Hodas, contends Falcone, who has since retired from the Miami World Center project, fell upon hard times after the real estate meltdown. "He was living the high life," Hodas says. "But his resources began to run out and circumstances changed."
Born in December 1952, the middle child in a modest New York City home, Edward Falcone quickly learned he liked the way money felt in his pocket. From paperboy, he went on to sell vacuum cleaners and eventually made enough to buy a McDonald's restaurant.
In the mid-'80s, Falcone moved to Pompano Beach and by 1987 had bought the franchises to 38 South Florida Wendy's restaurants. Soon he and his brothers, Arthur and Robert, would own more than 100 South Florida companies, corporations, and developments, ranging from restaurants in the Keys to condos in Hialeah. The Falcone Group now boasts "multibillion[s]" of dollars in commercial and residential real estate, according to its website.
In 2002, Falcone, who had been twice divorced, met Marcela Crespo at an Italian restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. He offered to buy her a glass of wine. "He was a simple guy," Crespo says. "You couldn't tell he was wealthy — he doesn't wear jewelry and he drove a Lincoln."
With her high cheekbones and long dark hair, Crespo looks like a Hispanic Catherine Zeta-Jones. She worked at a boutique in Sawgrass Mills mall and was intimidated when Falcone sent a limo to pick her up soon after they met. The driver took her to one of Falcone's estates, "a $15 million Italian-style mansion with beautiful oil paintings and antiques," she says. There he courted her, and she fell in love.
After dating for about a year, Crespo says, she became pregnant. Falcone encouraged her to keep the child, although they didn't marry. "He wanted a son so badly," she recalls. "He was old-fashioned in that way."
Like his love life, business was good. In 2004, he and his brothers made a trip to the offices of the Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) looking for tax breaks to help bankroll a lofty idea. Then-director Frank Rollason remembers them vividly. They were dressed as if they had been plucked from a golf course and spoke like actors in a commercial for pasta sauce.
"They were businessmen from the old school," he recalls. "I don't want to say they were like wise guys, but they were no-nonsense, and you could tell they were used to being in charge."