Miami commissioner delays approval of Little Haiti mega-project

Move comes after commissioners reject West Grove legislation

Rendering of Magic City Innovation District and Commissioner Ken Russell
Rendering of Magic City Innovation District and Commissioner Ken Russell

Miami commissioner Ken Russell, whose proposal to curb overdevelopment in Coconut Grove stalled Thursday night, single-handedly derailed the first vote on Magic City at a marathon meeting that stretched into Friday morning.

Citing a pair of city ordinances, Russell, chairman of the Miami City Commission who resides in and represents the Coconut Grove area, stopped a vote on first reading of the Magic City Innovation District Special Area Plan, a 17-acre site located between Northeast 60th Street, Northeast Second Avenue, the FEC railroad tracks, and Northeast 64th Street.

The proposed SAP must be passed twice by the commission prior to becoming law.

The rest of the commission was prepared to vote in favor of the 8.2 million-square-foot mixed-use development. The project calls for 2,670 apartments in buildings up to 25 stories tall on land that included the former Magic City Trailer Park at 61st Street and Northeast Second Avenue.

“I see that the mutual respect of all of us has been broken,” Commissioner Joe Carollo said in response to Russell announcing his intent to stop the vote on Magic City.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Little Haiti and who pushed for a last-minute $31 million contribution to the neighborhood from Magic City’s investors, repeatedly tried to push for the ordinance’s approval.

“We should be able to entertain the motion [that’s] on the floor!” Hardemon screamed, before waving off an aide who tried to calm him. “Get off of me!” he shouted at the aide. Hardemon, who at times during the discussion paced behind the dais, also yelled at and ejected vocal Magic City critics from the meeting.

The 16-hour meeting included the first reading of an ordinance sponsored by Russell to tweak two neighborhood conservation districts in Coconut Grove with the intent of slowing down the development of mansions. The measure was also geared toward preserving the character of the West Grove, a historical area of Coconut Grove founded by Bahamian immigrants in the late 1800s that is now experiencing a wave of new home development.

Critics of the West Grove measure argued that it infringed on property rights, but Russell said the proposed legislation was needed to protect the neighborhood’s character and slow the rate of displacement, citing the quickening pace of demolitions in the area.

The legislation died when Russell failed to get support from his colleagues. “It seems this has been a big exercise in wasting time,” he said.

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Hours later, critics and supporters lined up for the Magic City item. Investor Robert Zangrillo, developers Tony Cho and Neil Fairman, and ex-Cirque du Soleil CEO Guy Laliberte are proposing the special area plan, which also calls for retail, office and educational uses if approved.

Supporters, many of whom are Haitian activists and business leaders, argue that the project will bring needed jobs and that the developers have agreed to concessions that will help the community.

But critics of Magic City insisted that the project is out of scale with the surrounding area – which is dominated by warehouses, single-family homes, and low-rise apartment buildings – and will ramp up the gentrification that’s already taking place in the low-income, predominantly Haitian working-class neighborhood.

Prior to the meeting, Hardemon negotiated a deal for the developers to give $31 million to the yet-to-be formed Little Haiti Revitalization Trust for workforce or affordable housing. In exchange, Magic City would no longer be required to provide workforce housing within the SAP, said Neisen Kasdin, Magic City Innovation District’s attorney. Kasdin requested a second reading in two months, and said the developers have a tenant that’s waiting for the project to move forward.

But Russell said he was worried about approving a last-minute deal he had very little time to review, and used the city’s five-day rule to kill a vote from happening. If documentation is not presented to the city five days ahead of a meeting, a commissioner can invoke the rule.

Hardemon then tried to make a motion without the $31 million provision, the piece of the proposal that was not presented to all the commissioners in advance, but Russell invoked another ordinance, which stated that, after 10 p.m., the meeting ends unless it’s extended by unanimous consent.

Russell adjourned the meeting and walked out. “I’ve never ever seen a chairman abuse his authority by doing this,” Hardemon said.

Both the West Grove and Magic City ordinances will be heard again at future meetings.

In a Facebook message, Russell admitted that the commission meeting “didn’t end well.”

“The issue of development as it intersects our historic communities of culture and need was front and center for both Little Haiti and Coconut Grove’s Village West,” he stated. “ I hope to work together with my fellow commissioners to make sure that we get it right as gentrification has the risk of massive displacement.”

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