Liberty Square Bidding Starts

Friday, June 5, 2015

Bidding Process Starts for New Liberty Square

By John Dorschner 

    The ambitious process to overhaul Liberty Square has begun, with qualified prospective bidders meeting Thursday in a conference to discuss how to present their proposals, due July 2, for a massive project with an eventual price tag upwards of $200 million. 

    The county's idea is a complete transformation of the 57-acre public housing site, with a mix of public and private housing, retail shops and perhaps even a supermarket on a site that now consists of 700 problematic units built in 1937. Even a high-rise may be part of the mix.
Michael Liu
    "We are absolutely leaving that possibility to the developers," said Michael Liu, director of Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development. "We're not going to have any preconceived notions." 
           For decades, Liberty Square has a center of severe social problems,  with unemployment running close to 50 percent, according to Census reports. It was near the heart of the 1980 riots and -- despite vows shortly afterwards by federal, state and local leaders to transform the area -- virtually nothing was done during the past 35 years.
    One question raised by critics is whether public housing is itself the problem. A recent study of five million poor families by Harvard researchers found that those families able to move out of public housing clusters to more affluent neighborhoods are much more likely to produce kids who go on to college  and get good-paying jobs.
      Does that mean that the Liberty Square project might be simply an expensive construction to perpetuate dysfunctional poverty? A reporter asked Liu.
    "That's why we're not calling this a public housing development," he replied. "We calling this a mixed-use, mixed income development that also has some public housing units in it. We're going to have market-rate units, affordable housing units," with a mix of people rather than just the very poorest who are there now. In theory, that will make for varying role models for poor children to see and rub elbows with.
        "If that study looked at mixed income units, I think they'd see that those families do better than in the isolated public housing developments," Liu said in an interview Thursday.
        He said public housing should never be intended as a long-term solution, and many Liberty Square residents are expressing interest into finding alternatives for themselves, including private home ownership. 
        The county timetable calls for a bidder to be selected in the fall, with construction starting next year and finishing in 2020.
        The county's plan is to take $46 million (including $32 million in general bond funds) and leverage with funds from a private developer to create a $200 million-plus overhaul of the property in the heart of Liberty City.
       Another $28 million will go to develop affordable housing elsewhere in Liberty City, helping residents buy their own homes and a block grant to improve the area. 
       Liu, who came to Miami-Dade in 2014, said he's determined not to have a repeat of the last major county public housing revival, the Scott Carver project which ended up taking 12 years with huge cost overruns, including some questionable double-billing. The scandal was documented in a 2006 Miami Herald series, House of Lies, which won a Pulitzer. Many longtime Scott Carver residents are still waiting to return to their neighborhood. 
    "That's not going to happen" this time, Liu said firmly.
Liberty Square from Google Maps

    The plan is for the developer to build about 200 units in Lincoln Gardens, a vacant nine-acre Brownsville site two miles from Liberty Square. To start, some Square residents (say, from Block X) will move into Lincoln Gardens. Then those Block X units will be demolished and new units built. Then residents of the next section, say Block Y, will move into the new Block X and the Block Y buildings will be demolished and new structures built, paving the way for Block Z residents to move to Block Y. This rotation of people will go on until the entire Liberty Square is rebuilt.

       At the end of the process, Liu said, the residents shifted to Lincoln Gardens will be asked if they want to move back to Liberty Square, although past situations suggest many of them may choose to remain in Lincoln Gardens. The main point is that residents will be guaranteed a home in public housing if they want -- unlike the chaos that happened in Scott Carver.
      On Friday, Sara Smith, president of the Liberty Square Resident Council, said, "We're still in the early stages. Nothing has been finalized yet. We've been working diligently" with the county create a smooth transition of the residents.
    Smith said many of the 78-year-old buildings had cracks in the foundation, mold, and roach infestations that mean there's a desperate need for new structures.
                       CREATING A 'SAFE HARBOR'
      Marvin Dunn, a black historian and retired Florida International professor, believes new buildings are not enough to alter the unending cycle of poverty that has beset public housing here and elsewhere.
Marvin Dunn
    He's proposed creating a "Safe Harbor," using part of Liberty Square for a gated community of low-income housing, separated from the high crime and bad influences of the surrounding neighborhoods, with college-educated young men paid to serve as surrogate fathers, since public housing often consists of single-mother households.
    Dunn has received research money from the Children's Trust and the Knight Foundation to see if such a concept is feasible in Miami.
     Liu said he's met with Dunn. "We had a good conversation and agreed to loop back as he goes on with his research. Some think it [his idea] is controversial to some extent, but I think it's the kind of thing we want to encourage -- think out of the box, come up with ideas that engage people in discussion and debate.
    "However this shakes out in the end, I want him to be part of that community engagement," Liu said. "At the end of the day, it's going to be the decision of the community."
    Liu has degrees from Stanford and the University of Hawaii. From 2001 to 2005, he was an assistant secretary with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department.
    NOTE: An earlier version of this article had an inaccurate estimate of the number of units likely to be built at Lincoln Gardens and an inaccurate description about how Liberty Square residents will be moved as new units are built.

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