As King Tides rose in Miami Beach this week, brackish water spilled over sidewalks and drowned docks. There were at least two low-lying spots that stayed remarkably dry, though — the shopping plaza at Sunset Harbour, and the area near 10th and Alton. Both were saved by Miami Beach's multi-million dollar plan to combat sea level rise with pumps and raised sidewalks and roads.
The project is a rare good news story in the relentless march of dire climate-change tales. But there's a seedy political underbelly — and a glaring conflict of interest — to the
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who faces a reelection vote next Tuesday, owns millions of dollars worth of property in the two areas that have benefited the most so far from the city's anti-sea-level rise projects. He has voted in favor of a no-bid contract for the work in Sunset Harbour and appointed his co-owner in those properties to head a committee that advised the city.
The city says the locations were chosen because they're the lowest lying areas in town, not because of the mayor's property interests. But his mayoral opponent tells a different story.
"I have a very hard time believing it's just a coincidence that all this public money went into the areas where his buildings are," says David Wieder, who is running against Levine for the mayor's seat. "Indian Creek Road has flooded just as badly and hasn't gotten any pumps or raised roads."
Levine, who declined to comment for this story, seems almost certain to win re-election next week. He has reported more than $600,000 in contributions and self-loans to his reelection war chest. Wieder has just $22,000.
The city has pointed out that surveys showing which areas were hardest hit by tidal and storm flooding were mostly done before Levine, a media mogul with extensive real estate holdings, was elected in 2013.
Even some local opponents of Levine concede that the aggressive work to combat sea level rise under his watch has been a success. Frank Del Vecchio, a local activist who has harshly criticized Levine on other matters, says he believe the process has been fair. Del Vecchio sat in on meetings of the advisory board, which was chaired by Scott Robbins, Levine's partner in Sunset Harbour. "In this case, I believe things have been handled professionally from the start," Del Vecchio says.
But Wieder is right that the most extensive projects — those at Sunset Harbour and along West Avenue — involve significant public investment in property where the mayor holds major financial stakes (a fact that didn't make an appearance in the Miami Herald's extensive coverage earlier this week of the pump projects.)
The pump and sewer work at Sunset Harbour will eventually run about $20 million, the city says, with another $3 million or so going to raise roads and sidewalks; along West Avenue, the pumps and sewers will cost $50 to $60 million, with between $5-$9 million on sidewalk work.
City records show that on September 30,
According to his public disclosures, Levine owns a stake in virtually all of Sunset Harbour as well as properties just to the north and south of the booming — and now high and dry — shopping center. He also owns a stake in the new parking garage at the facility. In all those, properties are worth more than $3 million, according to county property records.
Levine also owns extensive property near 10th Street and Alton Road, a low-lying area that's been helped greatly by the new pumps installed at 6th Street and 10th Street. In all, Levine owns stakes in two properties worth more than $4 million in the vicinity.
There's little doubt that both Sunset Harbour and 10th and Alton need the help keeping out King Tides and storm surge. But it's also true that other areas on the Beach have similarly severe problems. Just this week, the city had to close traffic in both directions on Collins Avenue between 50th and 53rd Street due to flooding. Indian Creek Road has regularly been inundated by rising tides.
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There are mitigating factors — Indian Creek Road, for instance, would require FDOT's help to fix — but critics say that doesn't fully explain why the mayor's investments align so neatly with the city's anti-flooding work.
"There's an ongoing ethical issue with this mayor," Weider says. "He's ethically challenged."
Here's a full list of Levine's properties at Sunset Harbour and nearby and at 10th Street and Alton Road with their assessed values.
Sunset Harbour area: 1930 Bay Road ($750,000); 1919 Purdy Avenue ($750,000), 1929 Purdy Avenue ($750,000); 1900 Bay Road Parking Garage; 1916 Bay Road ($810,000); Sunset Harbor Condo Parking Garage; 1787 Purdy Avenue ($750,000); 1935 West Avenue ($1.7 million)
10th Street and Alton Road area: 960 Alton Road ($2.9 million); 930 Alton Road ($1.3 million)