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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
April 2017

Proposal for selling off public property downtown merits a closer look

WPix_EleazarMelendez_4-17henever inmates give a correctional institution a catchy nickname, it’s generally not coming from a place of love.

New York City’s municipal jail, for example, was baptized “the Tombs” in the 19th century, and not because of its resemblance to an Egyptian mausoleum. It contained a notoriously cold and claustrophobic sub-basement, where inmates were held before they got to see a judge.

In Louisiana, the exploitative work and rural decay associated with the state’s maximum security penitentiary has for generations seen law-breakers trade horror stories of being sent to serve hard time on “the Farm.”

Even in the federal corrections system, generally considered better funded and maintained, the poorly ventilated high-security prison at Fort Leavenworth is known as “the Hot House” for its sweltering cellblocks.

Locally, we have the irony of “Cielito Lindo,” the name given to the Dade County Courthouse by prisoners housed in the upper floors of that building during the 1950s. According to lore, it was so named because the position of the windows in those areas that housed inmates provided breathtaking views of the Miami sky...and not much else.

In a few years, depending on what happens to a county plan to redevelop public buildings downtown, that piece of Miami arcana could be a selling point for a broker somewhere: a quirky historical aside in a prospectus arguing that the historic building is actually the perfect place for a boutique hotel or fashionable shared-workspace business.

The possibility is foreseen in a report released last month by county officials, which essentially suggests putting the courthouse and a slew of other county properties downtown on the block for redevelopment deals.

The 40-page document, reportedly in the works for two-plus years, floats the idea of selling much of the county’s downtown property to developers. Another option for some of the properties would be to enter into partnerships that could allow for redevelopment while maintaining public uses, something that might result in new office space for county workers, cash for the county, or both. The report also suggests room for purely financial transactions like sale-leaseback deals.

Valuable air rights could be thrown in to make a deal for the courthouse financially viable, for example. The judges and clerks currently laboring in the building would be moved to a new facility, perhaps along with those working in the family-court building a few blocks away, which is also being put up for a redevelopment deal. Or they could remain in place after extensive renovations, with just parts of the building repositioned for other uses.

Across the street, the fortress-like plaza that houses the main library branch and HistoryMiami Museum could see a deal that partially demolishes the site in order to make way for more street accessibility and privately leased towers.

The library and museum might stay -- or they might be moved off to a new cultural mega-facility on the waterfront plot of land just behind the American Airlines Arena, known as Parcel B -- another one of the county properties in the report listed as potentially up for redevelopment.

Other prime sites the county is showcasing as ready for a deal: a large underutilized portion of the Government Center complex that currently houses a day-care facility and parking for county commission VIPs; a sliver of land next to the new Children’s Courthouse; a gas station and service center located west of the public library that currently services county vehicles; an obsolete clerk’s office on Flagler Street; and a garage structure on NW 2nd Street.

With the exception of a proposal already submitted by railroad and real estate juggernaut All Aboard Florida for the Government Center complex property, the report doesn’t spell out concrete plans to redevelop any of the properties.

But it does come at a time when the county school board is seeking momentum to create development opportunities on its large holdings just north of downtown, and while Miami-Dade College is holding a highly publicized bidding war among developers for its property next to the Freedom Tower, and with Miami commissioners pushing deals to sell and redevelop the city’s downtown administrative headquarters, downtown fire station, and downtown police headquarters.

It’s enough to make the urban core seem like a giant Monopoly board of public properties, with developers eagerly waiting for the lucky turn of the die that will let them pass Go. (This being Miami, some of them are also likely to roll the die straight into the “Go Directly to Jail” tile.)

The rationale, from a strictly financial perspective, is of course sound. The skyscrapers being built atop the new All Aboard Florida train station will soon dwarf the institutional buildings nearby, putting public officials in the position of either matching those heights or letting high-value potential development go to waste.

Politicians of all stripes like cutting ribbons and putting on hardhats for groundbreakings. And offered a deal that allows for, say, new government offices and private development to take place without spending taxpayer dollars, many will jump at the chance.

Of course, there’s hardly ever an easy win where public land is concerned. Along with the cries of sweetheart deal that will go along with any transaction, the issue of what those elected to lead Miami should prioritize looms large.

The county report gives a nod to that, explaining that redevelopment in some sites should be forced to provide public open space for recreational enjoyment -- although somewhat remarkably, it highlights the Parcel B property behind American Airlines Arena as a site for potential development without noting it has been promised as a public park for years.

But there’s a whole host of other issues that need to be taken into account. Should the county be promoting further increases in downtown traffic without making a robust plan to deal with traffic flow part of any development proposals?

What kind of message will be sent if one of the most significant cultural plazas in South Florida gets sold to a developer to put up yet another high-rise luxury condo?

How is development seeking to fit with the priorities of downtowners, who are desperate for a school that fits a walkable urban lifestyle?

What is to be done about the homeless who will be displaced by development?

Those are some of the questions downtowners need to ask.

Big partnerships that further build downtown and contribute to government coffers might be alluring. But it would be prudent to remember the inmates at Cielito Lindo who, seeing the blue sky coming in through a slanted point of view, seemingly stopped thinking about the rest of the landscape.

 

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