David and Leila Centner abandon fight for city of Miami park

Power couple pulled out of no-bid deal ahead of commission vote to rescind the controversial agreement to build a $10M domed recreation center

David And Leila Centner Abandon Fight For City of Miami Park
David and Leila Centner and rendering of domed recreation center at Biscayne Park (Getty, David and Leila Centner)

Fed up with being tied to Miami’s dysfunctional government corruption, David and Leila Centner backed out of their no-bid deal to build a $10 million recreation center at a city-owned park.

During public comments at Thursday’s Miami City Commission, David Centner said he and his wife are backing out of a license agreement to develop a youth sports complex with a dome in Biscayne Park, a 7.4-acre property at 150 Northeast 19th Street. The Miami Beach power couple own Centner Academy, a private school chain with three campuses, including a building adjacent to Biscayne Park. 

“We have been defamed, trolled and attacked for doing a good thing,” David Centner said. “No one here will even look me in the eye….We are pulling out….We are into improving the park, but we are not interested in spending $10 million in a domed sports park.” 

The Centners have faced mounting opposition since Miami city commissioner Miguel Gabela initially sought to terminate their no-bid deal in January. After several postponements, Gabela’s resolution to kill the Centner agreement came back on the agenda this week. Supporters of a scuttled plan to redevelop Biscayne Park into a mixed-use project that includes a new home for a popular magnet school outnumbered Centner Academy advocates at Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove on Thursday. 

Ahead of the city commission meeting, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools board voted to support Gabela’s resolution and oppose the Centner agreement. The public school system operates iPrep Academy, the magnet school that would be part of the mixed-use project. 

“We have been trying to make a substantial gift to the city,” David Centner said at Wednesday’s public hearing. “It is surreal we are fighting so hard to give our money away.”

Leila Centner told city commissioners that the couple would oppose any renewed plan for a commercial development at Biscayne Park. “A park is a park is a park,” Leila Centner said. “We just want it to be green space. But we won’t allow it to be a building.” 

Tainted by public corruption probe

Despite their insistence that their intentions for Biscayne Park are altruistic, the Centners’ $10 million recreation center proposal is tainted by the public corruption probe that led to criminal charges against Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Gabela’s predecessor, in September.

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William Riley Jr., a lawyer the Centners hired to lobby Diaz de la Portilla and city officials, was also criminally charged. In 2020, when he was chairman of the city’s Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, Diaz de la Portilla allegedly sandbagged efforts between the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County Public Schools to redevelop Biscayne Park, an arrest affidavit states.

The scuttled plan involved partnering with a developer via a request for proposals to build a project with affordable housing, office space and a new home for the public school district’s iPrep Academy. Instead, Diaz de la Portilla directed Omni CRA and the city of Miami staffers to formalize a license agreement with Perpetual Love Trust, an entity owned by the Centners. 

In addition to donating the $10 million recreational center to the city, Perpetual Love Trust would share 50 percent of the facility’s revenue and use the other 50 percent to provide maintenance and security for the first decade of the agreement. In exchange, Centner Academy would get partial exclusive use of the building. 

Riley allegedly set up a shell company under his name that accepted $245,000 in payments from Perpetual Love Trust between 2020 and 2022, the arrest affidavit states. Riley’s entity then allegedly funneled the money in various amounts at separate times to a pair of political action committees controlled by Diaz de la Portilla, the affidavit states. 

Diaz de la Portilla allegedly failed to abstain from voting on the license agreement due to his conflict of interest, as well as allegedly failed to publicly disclose his conflict, the affidavit states. 

The Centners provided sworn statements to investigators, and both have vehemently denied any wrongdoing. During Thursday’s city commission meeting, the Centners played a video in which they forcefully maintain their innocence. “I can’t reiterate enough, and for the 1,000th time, David and Leila Centner are not involved” in the alleged public corruption between Diaz de la Portilla and Riley, David Centner said in the video. 

City commissioners revoke license

Even though David Centner said he and his wife would no longer pursue the $10 million development, city commissioners officially killed the license agreement late Thursday afternoon by a 5-0 vote.

Commissioner Damian Pardo noted the cloud hanging over the no-bid deal justified killing the agreement. “What we have ascertained is that this was born in a very corrupt situation,” Pardo said. “It makes perfect sense to revoke this license. This is a case where the public interests were simply not being served.”

Commissioner Gabela dismissed concerns by his colleague, Joe Carollo, that the Centners may sue the city. “They don’t have a lease and they don’t have a contract,” Gabela said. “They can’t come back at us.”