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The Audacity of Parkland

50 million barrels of oil are being parked in tankers sitting offshore, lacking buyers. Let’s call it: Parkland.

But in Miami, Parkland is a name with another meaning. Parkland is a zoning application to move Miami-Dade’s abused Urban Development Boundary closer to the Everglades. Zoning and permitting processes in the United States can be mind-numbingly complex, reduced finally to the most arcane province of lawyers, engineers, planners, their statistics and formulas; but they are the base layer of government and the flip-side of the coin of the realm, through which mortgage debt is securitized, chopped up and sold off to investors seeking a higher return than the hum-drum stuff of direct government obligations secured by tax receipts.

For a century, the promise of development in Florida has had a golden ring. But generations of environmentalists and civic activists have struggled against the promise to preserve today’s quality of life and natural resources; a constantly shifting baseline that only intensifies conflict notwithstanding suites of blue ribbon panels, public/private partnerships, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. You don’t have to stray far from Florida’s main arterial highways; the flags waving in the eternal sunshine proclaim one development after another hidden behind stucco walls named liked potions or salves; Sunset Lakes, Miami Gardens, Biscayne Landing, Crocodile Point, and Parkland.

Parkland, as a zoning application, will be heard by thirteen members of the Miami Dade county commission and could be approved by a super-majority 2/3rds vote to the State of Florida, unless a promised veto by mayor Carlos Alvarez is sustained. Today the development target is 1000 acres of row crops supplying winter vegetables to the nation’s industrial food supply. In 2014 if the developers get their way, a sprawling city of 18,000 will grow from those farmlands as a “green” development, green the way a chameleon is green in the grass.

What sets Parkland apart is not just the audacity of re-zoning farmland for a destroyed economic model, suburban sprawl, but that the developers are the elite of Miami’s builders, developers and bankers who fomented Miami’s housing market bubble in the first place. Parkland pits environmentalists, community activists, and professional agency planners against entrenched economic interests who have controlled the county commission for decades. The shareholders of Parkland include bankers like Sergio Pino and Ramon Rasco who know in fine detail how politics they encouraged contributed to the current economic disaster while ordinary investors who bought the Cool-Aid of the housing boom are out of luck and time. The developers would argue this point in private; that they are not to blame but only followed for profit what the market wanted and what the law permits, but in public, defending a failed economic model has no place. And certainly not in Miami, a premier city in a state where logic, common sense, and fiscal prudence were steamrollered to provide mortgages to any buyer who could be dredged from the melting pot.

In respect to Miami’s role as the epicenter of the housing market boom and bust–Parkland stands out as a supertanker on the horizon. It floats on the same logic that in a state with a sole source of revenue– from real estate and related transactions– the only way forward is to increase tax base and lift all ships. In the end, it did neither. Today, as 2008 draws to a close, home-owners are left paying taxes on unrealizable assessed values. The tide has dropped far out to sea in Miami, leaving 100,000 foreclosures and more en route.

Tomorrow’s zoning hearing on Parkland will proceed according to a worn-out charade: presentations and powerpoints and last minute proferrings by the prospective developer, improvements to roads, schools and infrastructure well and far above what might be expected– Christmas stocking stuffers. There will be stock speeches by the smattering of opponents who can afford to take the time, and rote talking points by “the neighbors” (the preacher, the small businessman, the mother seeking the best for her children) who are bused in, understanding little beyond the offering of a desultory lunch and a few bucks. Last but not least, there will be county commissioners whose votes had been tallied long before the meeting, by quid pro quo’s and campaign contributions from the developers or their surrogates.

This is how important public hearings on zoning happen in Florida, to be scheduled before holidays or in the dead heat of summer or other inopportune times that best suit civic suppression. But Parkland is different. The Parkland application is a semi-colon on the way to 2009: the Forbes family has laid off the crew of its yacht wintering on the Miami River and is down to a skeleton staff. Good cheer is scarce as hens’ teeth. If you want a sense of Florida this Christmas, forget the Netjet set or the seven hundred a night rooms on Miami Beach. Drive through the suburbs that ring the proposed Parkland development site in far west Dade; cheap housing marketed as affordable, red roofed Mediterranean tiles by the hundred acre now pock-marked with for sale and foreclosure signs.

Parkland’s owners now say that they will not break ground on their development until 2014. What they really mean– this too will not be subject to discussion in tomorrow’s hearings– is that they need a zoning change from the county then the state to monetize land purchased at peak speculative values, the better to foist on European, or Asian, or MIddle Eastern investors / vultures who might be persuaded that all the rosy population growth pushed forward by the Latin Builders Association in 2005 still hold true.

Only, those investors are having trouble of their own– having put so much faith in the US dollar (see, below). But the problems of Dubai are an ocean or two away. Miami Dade county commissioners could approve the Parkland regional development irrespective of the euro, the ruble or the pound; after all, sending the proposal to the state of Florida, that will likely reject the plan and send it to court, is more or less like walking cows to the barn. It is a pattern that simply replicates the drama played out last week at the Dade County Courthouse where last year’s surviving applications to move the Urban Development Boundary were heard by an administrative law judge. All very polite. All just doing their jobs. Isn’t that model clear enough: low-cost legal battle versus the high cost of political independence?

The TV investigative series, 60 Minutes, on Sunday showed how the US economy is about to be hit with a second tsunami of mortgage foreclosures tied to Alt A and ARM mortgages; ie. the middle and upper middle class. The segment featured Miami but did not elaborate how these mortgages comprise the bedrock of Miami’s economic demographics: doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs who salvaged money from the dot.com bust in 2001 and speculated that real estate always goes up. So much, for that.

The pages of 2008’s economic misery would have to include a foreward on the abandonment of common sense, fiscal prudence, and how the risk to our quality of life, our environment, and job security was privately banked by the the entire supply chain related to unsustainable debt long before the crisis occurred. Their vision of dancing sugar plum fairies was all about paving over Florida wetlands, their twelve days of Christmas about shifting drinking water supplies between watersheds, burying municipal wastewater in deep underground aquifers nestled against drinking water reservoirs, destroying shallow seagrass wilderness, polluting estuaries, rivers and streams all to foster “build it, and they will come”.

So far, president-elect Obama has only promised that new jobs and trillions of dollars will be applied to “green” jobs in a new energy economy. Whether or not those dollars and his force of persuasion can filter, quickly enough, into the minds of decision-makers at the local level requires a feat of great political leadership. The kind of leadership that would reject Parkland out of hand.

So it will be interesting to see what happens to the Parkland development application to move the Urban Development Boundary, if only for an indication whether a pulse exists in the base layer of government. The nation’s banks are hoarding cash and bundling up for winter, a luxury not extended to consumers whose lifestyles had already depended on debt and two wage-earners per family. Every minute that government wastes, trying to kick-start the old economic model of growth that will not work for the foreseeable future, is a minute pushing America closer to a Depression.

But don’t take my word: read what George Soros wrote yesterday in the Financial Times. Mr. Soros is a big investor in real estate in Key Biscayne, an island enclave adjacent to Miami; on any night, he could stand on his penthouse balcony and see the outline of dozens of downtown, darkened and empty condominiums and in the opposite direction, twinkling on the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico, the lights of heavy freighters hanging offshore, laden with oil.

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