From Knight Manor to Nightmare

Lorenzo Simmons can be forgiven the confidence with which he strode into the Miami City Commission chambers on July 26, 1994. The president of the Tacolcy Economic Development Corp. was a man with a plan to revitalize a key corridor of Liberty City, one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods, to replace a bombed-out slum with modern townhouses and large front yards, basketball courts, and even a swimming pool.

For six months preceding the meeting, he had leaped every hurdle blocking his path to construction. First he identified the need for affordable housing near Northwestern High School on NW 79th Street. The brand-new, $75 million school contrasts starkly with the carnal ugliness of Knight Manor, the 50-year-old housing project across NW Tenth Avenue. Crack addicts steal the project's window frames for the aluminum, which they can recycle for eight dollars a frame. Piles of old clothes litter the lots. Graffiti tags all of the two-story shoeboxes with spray-painted testaments of fidelity to Candi, and Six, and Bobby, and LaToya.

Second, and most important, Simmons lined up the money. In January 1994, Dade County commissioners promised him $2.5 million toward the cost of tearing down Knight Manor and replacing it with his project, which he dubbed Western Estates. Now, as he stood at the Miami City Commission podium in his best black suit, all he needed was $500,000 from the city to tackle one last detail: An environmental review had revealed a high concentration of toxic chemicals on a portion of the land where a dry-cleaning business had operated. The construction could not commence without a thorough decontamination.

Although this request for money marked the first time Simmons had appeared before the city commission regarding Western Estates, he had been meeting separately with each commissioner for months. Initially Simmons had proposed apartments for the property, but Commissioner Miller Dawkins had said no, because he felt the neighborhood needed the stability provided by homeowners. So Simmons and his staff switched to townhouses. Commissioner J.L. Plummer said he wanted to see more green space on the property, not just another high-density slum with people stacked atop each other in cramped quarters. So Simmons reduced the number of townhouses he'd build and added wider lawns, shrubbery, the pool, and other amenities.

"I believe the problems with Item 21 have been resolved," said Plummer at the July meeting as he prepared to rubber-stamp Simmons's request.

Three of the four other commissioners nodded in unison. Only one shook his head. "No, they have not been resolved," Dawkins barked.

"Oh, God," muttered Mayor Steve Clark. "Now what's happening?"
Dawkins leaned forward in his black leather seat and rested his forehead on the palm of his right hand. "They say here they're going to build a townhouse with 900 square feet," he said to no one in particular. "I think the minimum should be a thousand. That's what I think."

At the podium, Simmons stood silent, incredulous. His company had a sterling reputation. After the riots of 1980, when much of Liberty City was burned to the ground, Tacolcy resolved to restore the neighborhood by building much-needed affordable housing for residents, virtually all of whom are poor and black. Local and national leaders heralded the openings of Tacolcy's Edison Plaza, Edison Marketplace, and other projects. The founder of the nonprofit firm, Otis Pitts, won a $265,000 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award" largely on the success of his rebuilding campaign. Simmons, who assumed control of Tacolcy in 1993, had kept the company charted on the same course.

Pitts and Dawkins, the city's lone black commissioner, never got along. Politicians and lobbyists alike say Dawkins is jealous of all the attention Pitts received, friction that no doubt increased when one of Pitts's vice presidents at Tacolcy ran against Dawkins in 1993. "He always saw red in anything having to do with Otis," says one local politician, requesting anonymity. "I thought that had subsided with time, but clearly he has been partial to [his friends] and totally negative to Otis's people."

Whatever hard feelings Dawkins may have harbored, at the July 1994 meeting he was unequivocally opposed to Simmons's request. "There should be a public hearing before the neighbors. Let the neighbors see the design. They don't have a design, they're just coming here. And they say, 'Land acquisition, cleanup of environmental issues.' They do not identify environmental issues. They say, 'The design of the project.' I have not seen the design of the project."

His face frozen in a glower, Dawkins peered at the podium where Simmons stood behind a blown-up posterboard design of the Western Estates project. "I think all of this needs to come before us before we can vote on it, and that's how I feel about it. They should come back in September with these things and let us look at them."