Frustration over affordable housing behind Edmonson move to kill Sawyer's Walk project
By Risa Polansky
Fiercely defending what she deems the needs of Overtown, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson is demanding the county take back land given to the City of Miami — a move that would effectively halt two pending developments there.
One, developer Crosswinds' Sawyer's Walk, has spent years embroiled in legal challenges and governmental delays but cleared its final hurdle Dec.13 in receiving city approval.
It would include 1,050 mid-income, for-sale units.
The other, the proposed Lyric Place by developer Gatehouse Group, was kick started the day before when city commissioners, serving as the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency board, decided to pursue a development agreement allowing for the mixed-use project.
The developer says it could include a Publix.
But Ms. Edmonson, who has long-criticized the Crosswinds project for what she calls a lack of affordable housing, has mandated that the county not extend the Dec. 31 reverter date that reclaims the undeveloped land.
Her demand comes as part of a push to protect Overtown in the massive global agreement passed by the city and county this month.
The agreement — in addition to providing for big-ticket projects such as a Marlins stadium and Port of Miami tunnel — requires the county to consider Jan. 10 extending the reverter date.
Re-conveying the property to the city would allow Sawyer's Walk to proceed.
Enacting the reverter clause would kill it.
"We're waiting to see what happens Jan. 10," said redevelopment agency Executive Director James Villacorta. "This would have a detrimental effect on the Crosswinds project and Lyric Place."
City Manager Pete Hernandez at the county meeting regarding the global agreement pled with county officials to keep an open mind on the 10th.
Ms. Edmonson rejected the pressure.
She did not return calls for additional comment but said at the meeting last week that "I'm here to represent Overtown…We're being told by the city we can accept what they're giving us or nothing."
She insisted the commission vote to enforce the Dec. 31 deadline to develop the land.
Some commissioners were sympathetic, as was county Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who pledged a veto should the commission decide to reconvey the property to the city.
"It is very surprising and it would be very unfortunate," said Matthew Schwartz, Crosswinds' director of urban development.
He maintains the development "would have started a positive change in the community."
Miami commissioners after several deferrals decided this month to approve the contentious project.
Critics have condemned it for what they call a lack of affordable housing.
Crosswinds promised as a concession — in addition to offering 160 units at 80%-140% of the local area median income and giving 50 units to the agency to be sold also as low-income housing — that both the city and the county may now each buy an additional 62 units to sell as they please.
The city had given Sawyer's Walk the go-ahead in October of last year, but Power U Center for Social Change, an Overtown group that opposes the project, was able to legally reverse the decision due to errors in the first public-hearing process.
The group is concerned the project would gentrify Overtown, inviting in more affluent residents and driving up rental rates in the area, among other issues.
Ms. Edmonson has said she agrees.
A large contingency again spoke out against the project during its most recent hearing, pleading with officials to kill the project and find one with a larger affordable component.
Others encouraged approval, citing the need for mixed-income developments — or any development at all — in the poor neighborhood.
"In order to have a vibrant community, you need to have a mixed community," city Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said before approving the project this month. "You cannot have a community that's going to survive and thrive without having that mix."
Mr. Schwartz agreed.
"It is very unfortunate because we have gone through a five-year process… to create a project that meets all of the objectives of mixed-income housing," he said.
But Ms. Edmonson has said since August she would not approve an extension of the reverter until 15%-20% of the project is formally committed to affordable housing, some at 40% or below of the area median income.
Mr. Schwartz insists the planned project is what the area needs.
"The whole premise of this project was to create a tax increment" that would then contribute to revitalizing the rest of Overtown, he said.
He said in August he expects the project to generate $12 million to $14 million in tax increment funds through 2014.
"That's money coming back to government," he said last week, to contribute to "self generation for improvement in Overtown."
Should the county follow through in reclaiming the land, he said he anticipates nothing would rise on it for years.
The property has been vacant since 1986, Mr. Schwartz said, and Sawyer's Walk could have turned things around.
"This project should have been under construction two years ago," he said, citing as the hold ups "frivolous lawsuits and governmental inaction.
The city requested in 2006 the county give the project the go-ahead, but the county took no action, he said.
Another consequence of enforcing the reverter: Crosswinds was to have paid $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit between the city and prior would-be developers of the property.
Should Crosswinds lose the project, the city gets stuck with the bill.