Updated with Liu comments at 12:27 p.m. Correction on nature of Waymark added 3 p.m. April 15, 2016.
A prominent Liberty City pastor who was involved in the bidding process to redo Liberty Square has quietly sent a letter to a key federal official demanding an investigation into how the contract was awarded.
Rev. R. Joaquin Willis, head of a religious group of predominantly black churches, sent the letter to Julian Castro, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
|Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis|
HUD is crucial because it must approve the deal that County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has struck with Related Urban for a $325 million makeover of Miami-Dade's largest and oldest housing development.
"The ambitious project to re-build this historically black community has been marred in politics, broken promises, delays and a lack of transparency. Moreover, the bidding process has been fraught with politically shifting rules and unclear requirements and guidelines," Willis wrote, with copies to various government officials, including Valerie Jarrett, executive assistant to President Barack Obama.
Mayor Gimenez insists that the Liberty Square bidding was proper, fully transparent and followed well established county procedures. He is scheduled to meet this evening (Thursday April 14) with residents of the housing project to discuss his selection of Related Urban, which still must be approved by the county commission.
On Thursday, Michael Liu, Dade's director of public housing, said that a meeting was held with the project's residents council on Tuesday night and most were supportive of what Related Urban was proposing for the rebuilding.
He noted that all the bidders were well represented by lawyers and none had filed a formal bid protest.
Represents Several Dozen Churches
Willis is senior pastor of the Church of the Open Door and president of the Collective Empowerment Group of South Florida, which represents several dozen churches.
His church was involved with a local corporation that was part of a bid by a nonprofit headquartered in Virginia, Community Housing Partners, which finished third in the original scoring behind two major for-profit companies with strong political connections, Atlantic Pacific Communities and Related Urban Development Group, part of the empire of billionaire developer Jorge Perez.
In the first round, the highest scores went to Atlantic Pacific and Related Urban -- and Mayor Gimenez then ordered that best and final offers be sought from these two top companies.
In an interview Wednesday, Willis wondered why Atlantic Pacific had been included in that second round, since it's the successor to Carlisle Development Group, whose leader has pleaded guilty to a kickback involving affordable housing funds, and some county leaders, including Commissioner Barbara Jordan, have wondered if Atlantic Pacific should be able to get county contracts.
Jorge Perez: "Second Most Influential"
As for Related's Perez, Willis observed: "The mayor is the most influential person in Miami-Dade. The second most influential is Jorge Perez." Willis cited an example: Local governments gave him $100 million and waterfront land for his Perez Art Museum Maimi.
While other pastors have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the Related Urban contract, Willis has worked quietly in the background. He termed a press conference held Monday at Liberty Square “a political dog and pony show,” attended by political opponents of Gimenez, including animal rights activists.
Willis' letter to HUD is dated April 4. He made it available to this reporter after an interview on Wednesday.
"We ... have serious concerns and questions about the transparency and the process followed by the county for awarding the said redevelopment project to a local entity with current and/or former ties to local government officials," Willis wrote HUD Secretary Castro.
Unfair Preferences and Pressures?
"Many in the community are concerned that there might even be some unfair preferences and pressures brought to bear on the Miami-Dade County Mayor, all at the expense of of the current residents of Liberty Square, which if not stopped now, will be marginalized, irreparably damaged and ultimately displaced when the redevelopment is completed.
"It is for all of these reasons that we are seeking your cooperation and support in properly investigating this matter and, if and when necessary, voiding the current redevelopment award and restarting a new fairer and more equitable and transparent bid evaluation and selection process, and/or granting such other remedy or remedies as you may deem necessary and proper to avoid yet another injustice being inflicted on your black community of Liberty Square."
Willis is listed as an officer with Miami Waymark 2.0, an alliance of for-profit and nonprofit companies that he hoped could bid for the Liberty Square contract.
Two years ago, he said, he met with Dade housing officials to discuss what could be done to rebuild and improve the social conditions in Liberty Square. He said that many of these suggestions were incorporated into the bidding requirements that were finally released, but Waymark was not allowed to bid because the county required a company to have experience in affordable housing tax credits -- a complicated and costly field to enter. (See earlier story HERE.)
"Hard for minority companies" to compete
He said the tax-credit requirement "makes it hard for minority companies" to compete for the large contracts.
Waymark ended up partnering with Community Housing Partners. In the first round of scoring, one of the three non-government panelists, Nathaniel Wilcox of the People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, ranked the CHP/Waymark proposal at the top, but the voting was skewed by Sara Smith, head of the Liberty Square residents council, who tilted the scoring so much in Altantic Pacific's way that it finished in first place.
Then came a second round of Best and Final Offers, that CHP/Waymark was left out of.
County officials have emphasized that Related Urban plans to give back to the government a considerable part of its developers' fee, but Willis said another matter doesn't get discussed: After 75 years, the land that the redeveloped Liberty Square sits on will be owned by Related Urban.
"That's a game changer."
Liu said that's not true -- that the land will remain public in perpetuity.
This blog will later publish a detailed analysis of the Related Urban final final bid.
NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Waymark 2.0 was an alliance of nonprofits. In fact, it's an alliance of for-profit and non-profit companies.