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Origins of the Fall

by ALAN FARAGO

The Miami Herald Business Section reports, "Planning the cities of the future/ 2050", through an interview with the president of the Urban Land Institute, Richard M. Rosan. There is a backstory that today’s readers of The Herald are not privy to; that bears repeating for the full context of the Urban Land Institute and its involvement in what could have been a model "city of the future" right here in Miami Dade only a few years ago. The year was 2002. The story was scarcely reported by The Miami Herald … a shame, because without that background information, today’s story marking the conference in Miami of more than 5,000 urban planning professionals, developers, architects and bankers from around the world provides no cautionary note, no benefit of experience, nothing to indicate the "greenwashing" that seeks to white-out the mistakes right here in Miami where greed and corruption met political opportunity in the mid-1990’s and triggered the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The story begins with powerful interests who had grown wealthy and powerful manipulating Miami Dade county contracts and federal housing dollars. A group, called HABDI, constituted from the board of directors of the Latin Builders Association, tried to seize control of the Homestead Air Force Base after it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Its goal was to turn the air base into a privatized, commercial airport. Its plan had the full backing and support of every elected officials in Florida except County Commissioner Katy Sorenson.

In 1994 HABDI persuaded the majority of the county commission, led by the county commission chairman Alex Penelas, to award a no-bid lease for 99 years for the entire air base even though it still belonged to the US Air Force. After a six year war with environmentalists, it became clear that the multi-year hijacking of the public interest– entailing tens of millions of dollars of waste of taxpayer money in planning and diversion of energies of professional county staff, the deformation of the Office of the Mayor to serve the interests of powerful campaign contributors and big engineering firms like Post, Buckley– had run out of energy.

That’s where the story involving the Urban Land Institute begins.

The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s business development agency, in 2001 hired the ULI to study what could be done with the property, providing of course that the conveyance of the property would proceed. After nearly a year of work, the ULI came up with a very simple recommendation in 2002; essentially the vision Mr. Rosan talks about in the Herald today; "exploring what cities should look like in 2050."

An October 16th, 2002 email gives a sense of the civic frustration: "… we have had very little information from Miami-Dade county on its plans. Mayor Alex Penelas and his appointee, county manager Steve Shiver–former mayor of Homestead–were the strongest advocates of the airport option, when it was viable. The county rejected a proposal from the Urban Land Institute, a respected and independent industry group, that had proposed maximizing the economic development potential for Homestead by utilizing the air base property for a land swap, providing for development close to the business district of Homestead."

Penelas was Mayor of Miami-Dade in 2000; the sole elected official who could have ordered the recount of the 2000 presidential ballots to continue. His fit of pique that the Clinton/Gore administration had failed to "deliver" the air base to his supporters was largely responsible for his being unavailable for comment at the time.

The ULI recommendation was based on the unique cultural, historic, and geographic location of Homestead next to America’s Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. It recommended that the air base property be used for a land swap for acreage in the center of Homestead and Florida City in order to densify the cities and thus build commercial opportunities that would otherwise be provided by low density suburban sprawl. The ULI reasoned that “Destination Everglades” could provide considerable economic stimulus to the region and expressly stated that this proposed development could not succeed at the Homestead AFB. It recommended a land exchange through which the economic value of surplus property at the air base could be realized. Trading surplus property at the air base for a parcel close to the business core of Homestead would provide synergy, momentum, and job creation at a level and scale deemed appropriate by ULI panelists. ULI also provided recommendations by which all the surplus property would be redeveloped to its maximum potential as promptly as possible.

County Commissioner Natacha Seijas who ran point for the Homestead Air Base developers once Penelas faded to political obscurity, rejected out of hand the ULI recommendation. It never saw the light of day beyond a dismissive waving onto a planning department bookshelf.

The story continues: the same builders, developers, and bankers who left the Homestead Air Force Base to hang out in the open air, like an orphan, after wasting so much money, time, and energy in 2001 then plowed suburban sprawl into South Dade as Fed Chief Alan Greenspan and compliant permitting agencies allowed the biggest asset bubble in housing in US history to proceed unchecked by forethought or regulation. The civic opponents of the air base conversion to a major commercial airport won the battle and lost the war.

Today South Miami Dade is a poster child for widespread foreclosure, loss and personal misery from the housing market crash. Some of the operators cashed out like carpetbaggers but the record of what they did is etched on the landscape in an awful testament. This is the county that not only embraced the values of the housing asset bubble; its prime instigators layed down political tracks taking us to this point in time– the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

None of the attendees at the conference this week have any inkling of what transpired here; instead, they will hear what "green" initiatives Miami should be applauded for. There is no accounting. No reckoning. No admission or acceptance of responsibility. But there is the record and it is far, far from pristine.

ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com

 

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