A War of Addition

In December 1997 Ron Bloomberg strode into Miami Beach City Hall for a predevelopment meeting with city planners. He hoped to construct a four-story office building at 23rd Street and Park Avenue, on the site of a long-abandoned Chevron station. The 33-year-old developer arrived feeling optimistic. He and his partners, after all, had already received the city's blessing to renovate the historic Palm Court building across the street.

Thomas Mooney, the city's principal planner, quickly dampened his mood. He told Bloomberg he would have to move his proposed building five feet north to accommodate the already-approved design for the Miami City Ballet's new headquarters.

"Tom, this is fucking bullshit," Bloomberg remembers saying. "Let me see their plans right now." His perusal of the file confirmed that the ballet, in apparent violation of city regulations, was being allowed to build right up to the property line. More remarkable was that the ballet's proposed building extended over two lots that Bloomberg knew to be privately owned. Yet the file also contained an affidavit declaring that the city, or more specifically its Redevelopment Agency (RDA), owned these properties.

He recalls pressing Mooney on this point: How could the city have given the ballet the go-ahead to build on land that neither the ballet nor the city owned? According to Bloomberg, the city planner was speechless.

Bloomberg left the meeting fuming. He knew that if he or any other developer had turned in an application like the ballet's, they'd have been laughed out of city hall. Nor did it take him long to develop his own theory about the city's actions. The ballet building, along with the expanded Bass Museum of Art and a proposed regional library, are the key components in creating a "cultural campus" in and around the Beach's Collins Park area. It seemed to Bloomberg that the city was determined to develop the area, even if that meant trampling on the rights of individual property owners like him.

In the first of a series of moves that would pit the pugnacious developer against the city, Bloomberg filed an appeal of the approval. This appeal has done nothing to slow construction of the ballet headquarters. The project is a concrete-and-steel reality. The city ordered the construction stopped in March because of a structural defect in the building's second floor, but once that is straightened out, the builders will continue pushing toward a scheduled completion in August. (A different error by another contractor also caused a delay in the construction of the Bass Museum in March.)

Bloomberg has managed to put the kibosh on another crucial aspect of the cultural campus, though: a 400-space parking garage, which would serve not only the ballet, but the Bass and the proposed library. City officials would love to get their hands on Bloomberg's Chevron property, to build the western half of the garage. In fact this past year they filed an eminent domain suit to wrest the property from him for that very purpose.

That suit has since been dropped, but after eighteen months of rancor, of suits and countersuits, the very mention of Bloomberg's name in city hall is enough to elicit rolling eyes, groans, and grimaces. Commissioners and staffers have pegged him as greedy, obnoxious, litigious, and obstinate; a fly in the ointment, the guy who wants to kill the cultural campus.

Bloomberg's battle with the city has all but ruled out the construction of a garage in an area of the Beach where parking is scarce and getting scarcer. The city has also had to defer a plan to turn a surface parking lot across from the cultural campus into a public park.

The developer maintains that he's just trying to look out for his rights, and that if the city would deal with him reasonably, he could help them with their parking problem and drop his litigation.

At least for now, the city is having none of it. Although everyone agrees that his property is the ideal site for a garage, officials are dead set against working with Bloomberg, whose attitude and financial demands they consider offensive. As Commissioner Nancy Liebman puts it: "We're not going to be blackmailed into paying his price."

The birth of the cultural campus concept can be traced to Commissioner Susan Gottlieb. A couple of years ago, in the midst of discussions over the placement of several artsy edifices in the city, an idea suddenly occurred to her: "What if we put the ballet near the new library and the Bass Museum, and made the property into a kind of cultural campus? I gave it that name, and it stuck," Gottlieb says now. "It would absolutely revitalize a very downtrodden area of the Beach."

The area she describes, bounded by Park Avenue to the west, Collins Avenue to the east, 23rd Street to the north and 21st Street to the south, is surrounded by Art Deco apartment buildings and hotels that range from rundown to presentable, assorted low-end retail stores along Collins, and the legendary Wolfie's Restaurant. Collins Park itself is a gathering place for the city's homeless population.

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell