Related Sidesteps Problem

By John Dorschner

      In making its "best and final" offer to re-do Liberty Square, Related Urban offered a plateful of sweeteners to its original proposal -- and also quietly fixed an issue that could have been problematic.
    The issue: How tall should public housing be? Its original proposal squeezed the public housing units into eight-story "mid-rise" buildings that some experts thought might be a questionable decision. Related's latest offer has the public housing units in "garden-style" three-story buildings.
    The quality of the bids by Related Urban (RUDG) and its remaining competitor, Atlantic Pacific Communities (APC), are scheduled to be examined and scored by the Liberty Square evaluation and selection committee in a publicly announced meeting at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at 1407 NW 7th Street.
Related Urban's first proposal for Liberty Square

    The process has drawn loud complaints from some Liberty City residents as the field winnowed from six bidders to two large, politically connected companies. Sara Smith, the lone Liberty Square resident during the first-round evaluations, strongly favored APC, and her lopsided scoring tilted the score to APC.
    In its best and final offer (BAFO), Atlantic Pacific noted: "We are thrilled that our initial response was ranked No. 1 ... We understand that aggressive lobbying and scare tactics employed by another contender have  forced the county's hand in issuing this BAFO."
    Atlantic Pacific improved its offer, adding almost $8 million in funds given to the county, making for $25 million that ACP  would return to Miami-Dade. ACP said also it would need only $42 million of the $46 million the county was planning to invest in the $250 million-plus project.
    RUDG meanwhile said it needed $45.6 million of the $46 million -- but would return $44 million to the county over 15 years. 

                                   Big Promises
    RUDG also promised: Building in stages so that no Liberty Square residents had to temporarily leave the project on NW 62nd Street; add an Alonzo Mourning Youth Center; add more public housing units to its proposal (on a second site, in Brownsville); drop the charter school that school officials had complained about, and several other improvements.
    One key change by RUDG in its final offer was mentioned, but not highlighted: The 745 public housing units would be "garden-style," meaning no more than three stories.
    The original RUDG proposal clustered its public housing units in eight-story "mid-rise" buildings at Liberty Square, with shops on the first floors and apartments in the seven stories above. ACP by contrast had its public housing units in one- to three-story units.
Related Urban's public housing units in its "best and final offer."

    This is a crucial issue because high-rise public housing in America has a notorious history as centers of crime and family dysfunction -- so much so that many cities, particularly Chicago, have imploded their public housing high-rises and started over with one- or two-story apartments.
    Before RUDG announced the changes in its Liberty Square plan,  Miami Web News asked three national experts on public housing:
    Can mid-rise public housing work, or is it a recipe for disaster?
    The answer from all three: Maybe, maybe not. It depends on specifics.
    But: "I'm sort of surprised that they are proposing them [mid-rises], said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute who has spent 25 years studying public housing, including the disastrous history in Chicago.
     "It's not the industry standard anymore. They're harder to maintain and they're not great for families," Popkin said. "I'm curious why they would do that."
    Orlando Cabrera, a Washington consultant for public and affordable housing developments who is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: "It has worked in certain parts, and has not worked in certain parts. There is no hard and fast rule. It has been a success in some cases and a challenge in other cases."

                     "Much More Complicated"
    Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago who has studied public housing problems and is author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism, put it this way: "The issue is in the details of it [the proposal]. My own sense having done research and talking to public housing experts and planners and architects is that in terms of the public sense of what's gone wrong, the problem of high-rises is exaggerated.
    "It's a much more complicated story," Bennett said, depending in part on how well the units are maintained and policed, how large the units are and the quality of the surrounding area.
    High-rise public housing has a horrendous history of perpetual violence -- and the never-ending fear of violence.
    One example: Popkin at the Urban Institute notes that her research into public housing included "work on how living with chronic violence had blighted the lives of families in Chicago’s notorious high-rises. I was struck by how many women in these communities had experienced sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation—and how 'normalized' these problems had become."

                         "The Real and Final Villain"
    The best known attack on high-rise public housing was made by architect-planner Oscar Newman, who wrote his 1973 book Defensible Space, an analysis of crime in New York City public housing: "It is the apartment tower itself which is the real and final villain.” (Newman was a character in the recent HBO series on public housing Show Me a Hero.)
    In recent years, however, continuing research suggests that it's not as simple as the height of a building.
    Bennett, the Chicago professor, notes that the latest research shows that the city had built a dense cluster of public housing units -- 4,500 units in a small area. "Twenty-thousand people living there, and 20,000 were kids under 18."
    Too many kids, not enough supervision, not enough policing, buildings allowed to run down -- and then add gangs to the mix. All that meant that crime soared.
    "I think architecture is significant, but there are so many other variables," Bennett said.
    Popkin: "The high-rises were terrible in Chicago -- isolated, cut-off from the rest of the city, and absolutely junk construction. ... No dry-walling, light bulbs were bare, no showers. Just awful. And concentrated in a four-mile stretch."
    Both Related Urban's and Atlantic Pacific's plans call for a income mix in the Liberty Square, with some units for affordable housing for lower-income workers whose rent would be based on income.

                           Why Build in a Problem Area?
    Both Bennett and Popkin question whether a project in the heart of a low-income, high-unemployment area can attract people of higher incomes -- and whether a remade Liberty Square can manage to be a better influence than the surrounding area.
    "It's a fair question," said Popkin. "Concentrations of high poverty, high crime, that does a lot of damage to kids -- trauma -- that is inter-generational. There are reasons to question whether to build if nothing else is happening in that area, if it's not part of a larger investment. That's a real cause for concern."
    Cabrera knows the Miami area well. He's a former executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp, which doles out valuable affordable housing tax credits that fund many housing projects in the state.
    "There are quite a few eight-story affordable housing buildings near the Liberty City area, and I think they've worked just fine," Cabrera said.
    In fact, Related Urban's final plan for Liberty Square does have some five-story structures in it, but they are "elderly, affordable and workforce" housing. The public housing is low-rise.
    Bennett notes that the one place where high-rise public housing has not had problems is when its for the elderly.
    The county selection committee will score the two proposals, and send a report to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who will make the final recommendation, which will then be voted on by the county commission.
    Both developers have offered to continue working with the county and Liberty Square residents to create the best possible project.

                      Strong Political Connections
    Both developers have strong political connections. 

    RUDG is the affordable housing unit of Related Group,  a big, experienced developer led by Jorge M. Perez, one of the most powerful figures in Miami-Dade politics who was worth $3.1 billion in 2015, according to Forbes.
    One example of Perez's power: While major collectors like Marty Margulies, Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz and the Rubell Family built their own art museums in Miami without government subsidies, the powerful Perez managed to get $100 million in taxpayer funds from the county and a hugely valuable bayfront park property from the city to create the Perez Art Museum Miami.
    Atlantic Pacific Communities too has strong connections with politicians. One example: County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson helped hand out APC turkeys in Liberty City just before Thanksgiving.
    APC was spawned in 2013 to take over some of the assets of the Carlisle Development Group, a huge affordable housing company that came under federal investigation. Several Carlisle executives, including Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Naylor, moved to Atlantic Pacific to handle the projects. Carlisle's chief executive later pleaded guilty to taking millions in a kickback scheme.
Liberty Square at present

    A RUDG attorney, Albert E. Dotson Jr., has fired off letters to the county saying that Atlantic Pacific's bid should be thrown out because APC is claiming to be an experienced affordable housing company, when in in fact its improperly using Carlisle's experience as its own.
     Meanwhile, some leaders in Liberty City, led by Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, are objecting that poor people's wishes are being ignored. Dunn told Miami Times that he's disturbed that the mayor has asked for updated proposals from the top bidders, rather than selecting APC, the high scorer.

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