Harry Nelson's Midtown Gardens debacle

About ten years ago, gardener to the stars Harry Sickle Nelson — yes, his middle name is an agricultural tool — decided to do a little work on his own home in upscale Morningside. The olive-skinned 53-year-old brought in minions with hoes, bobcats, sledgehammers, chainsaws, and shovels. By 2003, the 26,000-square-foot grounds surrounding stucco spires on NE Sixth Avenue resembled a haunted house. A dilapidated metal fence and warning sign reading Bad Dog completed the effect.

This did not please Morningside's moneyed and staid residents. In fact, one lawyer who lived nearby — since-deceased Pierce Mullally — distributed signs reading Burn the Witch! and several Morningsiders took to marching outside Nelson's gate, waving the placards. The city fined this green defiant, who once designed the grounds of Gianni Versace's Ocean Drive mansion, $500 a day for illegal renovations. Neighbors accused him of using the residence — actually owned by his father of the same name — as an unlicensed supply hub for his business.

Now, Nelson has again drawn ire. The reason: He transformed 2.5 acres of land in the center of Miami's most-touted mega-development into a gigantic mess. "It looks terrible," sniffs Shad Morin, a massage therapist who lives in a condo in midtown Miami, the real estate project that was supposed to turn Wynwood into a South Florida SoHo. "Everybody's asking what's going on with it, and nobody knows anything."

Last week, the development's owner, Midtown Equities, responded to more than a year of resident complaints by abandoning Nelson's plan for a spectacular collection of gardens. "Challenges faced," according to a signature-less press release, had resulted in Nelson's "inability to complete his vision."

Nelson, who sports arching Michael Keaton eyebrows and enough sass to judge a network-television dancing contest, doesn't apologize when reached by telephone. "How many hits can I take?" he asks, citing expenses including a $160,000 soil bill. And, he says, Midtown Equities had plans to plow his masterpiece to make room for more buildings. "That's like you coming over to my house for a spectacular meal," Nelson huffs, "and then you take a bulldozer to my kitchen."

Midtown was launched six years ago by Midtown Equities CEO and native Miamian Joe Cayre with the help of approximately $177 million in county and city tax breaks. The 28-acre development is perhaps the most ambitious redevelopment project in the city's 100-plus-year history. It's billed as "urban meets chic." But instead of Wynwood for the puggle crowd, today it more closely resembles a plain ol' suburban shopping center.

With the exception of successful restaurants such as Mercadito and Sugarcane, the development is dominated by decidedly un-happening big-box shops and chain retailers like Target, Foot Locker, and Loehmanns. And the 729 condos in towers ringing midtown have sold at a disappointing rate even by Miami's post-bubble standards, says Peter Zalewski, founder of Miami-based company Condo Vultures.

Before the market crashed, a Midtown Equities affiliate bulk-purchased 362 condos. Midtown has since suspended its sales program until the condo market rebounds, and spokesperson Suzanne Schmidt points out that 98 percent of its rental units are occupied. But less than half have sold, says Zalewski, far below the downtown Miami average of 79 percent. The condos are selling for between $175 and $250 per square foot — down from peak rates nearly double that. "It's virtually unheard of to have closed so few units," says Zalewski. "Ultimately, condo owners who are looking to live on the cutting edge are not excited to live above a Ross Dress for Less."

Originally, midtown was supposed to have 11 condo towers, but only three were built. That left a sizeable, grass-filled gap in midtown's heart on NE 36th Street between First Court and First Avenue. So it was with unrestrained pomp that in March 2009, Midtown Equities announced the World Gardens project. To be "unveiled" that winter, it would be a work of photosynthetic art showcasing botanical styles from around the world, including Japan, Bali, and Versailles, surrounding a "100-foot-long reflecting channel." Jack Cayre, CEO Joe's son and a principal in Midtown Equities, gushed in a press release that the gardens would be "something never before seen anywhere."

In December 2009, the project was months behind schedule. Nelson led a Biscayne Times reporter around the grounds and boasted: "I have wanted to do this for 20 years... This garden will literally be changing the face of landscape design."

Nelson explained he scored the high-profile gig after working the grounds of Deborah Samuel, a principal broker at Midtown Equities, and her husband Michael, a former investor in the project. Nelson had been given a three-year lease on the land, at a dollar a year, and unlimited use of Midtown's utilities.

Nelson was flanked by a somewhat-mysterious partner in World Gardens: Jose Acosta, who was identified by BT only as a "former technology-development executive." He's since jumped ship. "I was just helping him with the website," Acosta claims when reached by New Times. Then he hangs up.

World Gardens was to be funded by "private investors and donations," Nelson says. And with tens of thousands of people flocking to Wynwood for Art Basel, the concept would do much to boost midtown's image.

From the beginning, there were skeptics. Says Ted Baker, a Miami-based fellow at the American Society of Landscape Architects: "It didn't seem to me that [Nelson] had a very strong understanding of what he was getting into." Truly dastardly, in Baker's eyes: Nelson, who calls himself a "garden designer," isn't a licensed landscape architect in Florida. "I look at people who call themselves 'landscape artists' or 'garden designers' as the parallel to those guys who are shooting people up with steroids and calling themselves doctors," Baker grumbles.

Excepting all that, Nelson's background doesn't scream suitability for public works. Since 1988, he's been sued at least six times in Miami-Dade County for allegedly not paying suppliers, subcontractors, and other debtors. He was recently the target of a suit by insurance provider Rain and Hail, LLC, for a bill topping $16,000. That was later dismissed. And in 2008, Nelson stiffed Larry's Cap Rock & Stone with a bounced check, the subcontractor claimed in court. The company sued for $30,375, but the squabble was privately settled.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2010, Nelson got to work on the midtown project — or not so much. His workers, along with unpaid volunteers attracted through the World Gardens website, ravaged the green plot in preparation for Nelson's masterwork, which never materialized.

Then came the accusation — likely unsurprising to Morningsiders — that Nelson was using midtown's land as an unlicensed commercial hub by peddling foliage to nearby businesses. "I think the guy is more interested in selling plants to Sugarcane," one resident, Greg Walton, commented on the Midtown Miami blog. "I believe this is his nursery, rent-free." (A Sugarcane manager said she knew nothing of the purchase.) In February 2010, Nelson took to midtown's website to announce he had "suffered a personal tragedy" — his sister died, he said — which had caused the delay. He published a schedule that would have the gardens finished by 2010's Art Basel.

Little progress followed. The land is now marred by ravines of dirt, piles of gardening equipment, half-sawed trees, and the one finished aspect — a lily pond — that acts as a mosquito magnet in the summer. It was not until this publication inquired that Midtown Equities announced it had scrapped the project.

Nelson was in a testy mood during his conversation with New Times. He declared he finally gave up on the project, even after spending $400,000, when Midtown Equities recently told him the garden might be replaced by construction within a year. The rumored addition is a movie theater. It's a development locals have been clamoring for but a sleight to Nelson's potential artistry. "Maybe it's a good thing that my sister had issues," he declares. "It would have been a shame to have created something beautiful and then have them plow over it."

He then asked when this story would be published. "Good," he responded smugly. "I'll have my [Miami] Herald piece run the same day. They're doing a story on all of my accomplishments, and it will overshadow your hatchet job."

Nelson would not pick up New Times's four subsequent calls or a note left in a mailbox at his Morningside home — where the grounds are still in disarray. It appears that renovation remains in the works.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts