West Flagler Associates scored a four-of-a-kind win when Miami commissioners Joe Carrollo, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Manolo Reyes and Jeffrey Watson voted to approve a new settlement agreement, allowing the company to develop a jai alai fronton and card room in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood.
The pari-mutuel and casino company also procured an ace-in-the-hole by getting the blessing of longtime gambling opponent and Miami civic leader Norman Braman, who won’t contest the agreement after the city commission also voted 4 to 1 on first reading to pass legislation that prevents West Flagler Associates from expanding the site into a full-blown casino with slot machines.
During Thursday’s city commission meeting, West Flagler principal Isadore “Izzy” Havenick said opposition against the jai alai fronton and card room was rooted in disinformation and outdated beliefs that gambling is run by organized crime. “This is not the 1940s anymore and the days of Meyer Lansky,” Havenick said. “Anyone who characterizes it as a full blown casino is not genuine. All those disingenuous statements are not valid anymore.”
With Braman no longer opposing the jai alai fronton and card room, it is less likely Miami Mayor Francis Suarez would veto the city commission’s actions. Last year, Suarez vetoed a previous settlement agreement between the city and West Flagler because of opposition from Braman, real estate developer Jorge Pérez and two homeowner associations. The proposed pari-mutuel facility would be located on a property at 3030 Biscayne Boulevard owned by Crescent Heights, the development firm led by Russell Galbut.
“This settlement agreement is very similar, but much improved than the settlement authorized a year ago,” Raquel Rodriguez, the city’s outside counsel, told city commissioners. She added that Braman’s lawyers said the car dealership mogul was supportive of the new settlement agreement. “His counsel expressed satisfaction with everything we had done,” Rodriguez said.
The two measures passed without the support of Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents Edgewater residents and voted against the settlement agreement and the other resolution. Russell failed to convince his colleagues that the city should continue defending against a federal lawsuit filed by West Flagler Associates.
The company is suing the city over a Russell-sponsored ordinance that required West Flagler to go through zoning hearings to obtain final approval. West Flagler contends it already has the necessary permits to build the pari-mutuel facility. Russell claimed that a vast majority of 180 emails he had received from Edgewater residents were against the settlement agreement.
“I think we are caving in a little too soon,” Russell said. “I really believe we should deny the settlement. I really believe we have a case.”
Carollo, Diaz de la Portilla, Reyes and Watson ignored Russell’s pleas by noting that he and along with the entire city commission had directed staff and the city attorney’s office to work out a new settlement. “There was a clear direction to reach a settlement,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “If you don’t like it, just vote against it.”
The city commission’s decision comes two months after a Miami-Dade judge ruled the city unlawfully approved the first settlement with West Flagler Associates, owners of Magic City Casino and other gambling sites in the city.