Activists Slam Mayor for Financial Ties to North Beach Developer and His Brother

As developers and residents duke it out over the future of a beachfront strip in North Beach, activists contend Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and commissioners were unduly influenced by big money from businesses with stakes in the controversial development.

Voters next week will decide whether to allow developer Sandor Scher and his principal investor, Alex Blavatnik, to build a giant condo and hotel tower on Ocean Terrace, a historic stretch of beachside buildings in North Beach. Blavatnik and his brother Len — who is the billionaire behind the separate Faena District megaproject — have each been generous donors to Levine and his favorite city projects.

Last December, Levine released a call for sponsors for the city’s lavish 100-hour centennial celebration, urging companies to bankroll the celebrity-studded event. Len Blavatnik gave $200,000. Soon after, his company Saxony Beach donated $100,000 to the Relentless for Progress PAC, which was created by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson and supported by Levine.

Wolfson voluntarily closed that PAC earlier this summer amid widespread controversy and an ongoing ethics commission investigation into whether city vendors were improperly strong-armed into donating. (Through a spokesperson, Levine declined to comment for this story.) 

Meanwhile, Alex was buying up properties in North Beach as part of a development project on Ocean Terrace. Along with Scher, the two have purchased more than $70 million worth of property in the North Beach district. Plans for the Ocean Terrace development include demolishing several oceanfront properties to make way for a 70-unit, 250-foot luxury condo tower.

After the two went before Levine and city commissioners with their idea, in July the commission voted 6-1 to put the Ocean Terrace development plan on the ballot.

Critics say the combined $300,000 the Blavatniks gave to the city celebration and the RFP PAC helped put the developments on a speedy path to approval. 

“This proposal was fast-tracked because the developer had the inside track on the majority of the commission,” says Jose Smith, a former Miami Beach city attorney who now has the same job in North Miami Beach. “They were shaken down by Wolfson’s PAC, and they’re friends of the majority of the council. Certain developers have connections and an open door to the mayor and his people.”

The developers have denied any such cozy ties with Levine and the commission. Scher told the Miami Herald last week that he “does not make contributions to candidates or political committees and that Alex Blavatnik is participating in the Ocean Terrace project independently of the partnership he runs with his brother Len.” 

Scher has also hired lobbyist David Custin at $8,000 per month to help push for his plans. In another hint at the project’s close political ties, Custin is running reelection campaigns for Levine and three new commission candidates.

Longtime Miami Beach activist Frank Del Vecchio says he can't help but connect the dots between the developer's donations and such an important zoning favor. 

“When you look at the entire picture, including donations solicited by the mayor to his centennial promotion and the monies extracted by the mayor and Wolfson to RFP, you see a pattern of using government power for self-promotion,” Del Vecchio says. "I think the evidence is clear that Levine has cultivated big developers and vendors."
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Jessica Weiss