From Knight Manor to Nightmare

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Odio says he pulled out of the proceedings at that point. "I wish I was involved in the construction, because that's where all the money is," he sighs. "But I wanted to avoid a conflict of interest." He says he was not paid for his services.

Before he departed, Odio set up the developer with a local architect, Nelson Mallo of Urban Architects in Coral Gables. Mallo is Javier and Cesar Odio's brother-in-law.

Levine responded by fax to written questions regarding this article. His recollection: "Most contact with the City of Miami has been without the benefit of introduction." He made no mention of Javier Odio, and was unavailable to respond to follow-up questions.

In March of this year, at the request of Cesar Odio, Miami City Attorney A. Quinn Jones ruled that Nelson Mallo's involvement in the housing project does not constitute a conflict of interest. "A member of my family which [sic] was only performing a specific service and was not in any way an owner or had ownership interest in the subject project would not create a conflict of interest or other legal complaints," Odio wrote in an April 4 memo explaining Jones's reasoning. (Neither the city attorney nor Odio responded to requests for comment for this story.)

Despite the unpolished plans, Miller Dawkins showed a strong interest in Levine's proposal. Notes on file in the commissioner's office indicate that he told the Fort Lauderdale developers he could get them nine million dollars in grant money to construct new homes. (The amount actually requested would drop to $4.7 million.) According to city commission minutes, he also handpicked the nonprofit they should work with: the Urban League of Greater Miami, and his ally T. Willard Fair.

City housing officials also took a preliminary look at the project, and calculated Miami's role more conservatively than Dawkins did. "Our initial recommendation from a staff point of view was to fund half of what they wanted," explains Jeff Hepburn, assistant director of housing. "Their initial request was $4.7 million and we recommended $2.3 million. Normally how these things go is, we give you a little bit, you get a little bit from the state and a little bit from the county so you can go to banks and say, 'We have all this money, why don't you lend us some more?'"

Hepburn and his staff presented their views at the September 1995 city commission meeting, proposing a resolution that called for the newly formed partnership between Levine and the Urban League to receive $50,000 to test the soil for contamination, with $2.3 million to be earmarked for release if the partnership obtained matching grants.

Dawkins waved off the resolution as it had been written. He wanted to give the partnership $4.7 million immediately -- even though the developers were still arguing over what kind of houses should be built (Levine wanted townhouses; the Urban League didn't think they'd sell).

Rather than settle the spat through further research, Dawkins proposed a novel solution: He wanted to give the developers a few million dollars to see whether the project would work. If not, then the partners could spend the remaining millions somewhere else. "I would like to move...that the Urban League and [Levine] be instructed to go to the [city] manager, develop townhouses with the two million we're going to give them, and hold the other two million in reserve," Dawkins orated that day. "After they build and sell the first phase for two million, we will know if townhouses will sell or if they won't. If they won't, you take the second two million and build what they want to build."

Only Victor De Yurre raised a serious objection. The real estate attorney switched on his microphone to plead for caution. "How are we going to sell this?" he asked. "And what is it going to be based on? Do we have feasibility studies? Do we know what the market area is?"

Dawkins, who had raised many similar questions about the Tacolcy project, cut De Yurre off. "We are there!" he thundered. "We are there, where we're going!"

The resolution that passed, after much further discussion, mirrored Hepburn's original resolution, with only $50,000 awarded. But Dawkins insisted that this published motion did not match the motion he had put forth, and in December he moved that the record be corrected to award the Urban League and Levine the full $4.7 million, plus the $50,000 start-up fee.

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Robert Andrew Powell