Miami Beach referendums to benefit mayor’s rich developer friends

There are eight referendum questions on the Miami Beach ballot, including two that are carefully camouflaged giveaways to rich millionaire developer friends of Mayor Dan Gelber.

Even former Mayor Philip Levine — who was caught in a secret meeting with Gelber and developers trying to form a political action committee to turn South Beach into another Brickell — could get a piece of the action.

We’re talking about referendums 4, 5 and 6, which revolve around three parking lots adjacent to Lincoln Road that the city would lease for 99 years and that would be developed into office, retail and residential spaces.

Referendum 5 would approve the lease of a city-owned parking lot (1.36 acres) at 1664 Meridian Avenue to 1664 Meridian LLC. This is Levine’s group, which also include his partner Scott Robins and R. Donahue Peebles. They want to build a six-story, mixed-use building with 80,000 square feet of office space, 46 residential apartments, 10,000 square feet of retail and a garage with at least 151 parking spaces.

Referendum 6 would approve a 99-year lease of city parking lots at `1080 Lincoln Lane North and 1688 Lenox Avenue (about two acres) to Lincoln Road Property Owner LLC. A group led by Starwood Capital would build The Gardens of Lincoln Lane, two office and retail buildings — one 6 stories tall and the other 8 stories. They would replace all existing public parking, plus provide additional parking (425 spaces in total).

Referendum 4 is about collecting the payments and how the funds would be used. It is misleading, because while it says that the funds are to be used specifically for housing and resiliency, these are items already funded in the city budget and there’s no guarantee that city funding could be diminished accordingly if it is replaced by the project funding. Anyway, referendum 4 doesn’t exist without 5 and 6, so they should all be voted down.

Proponents (read: Gelber and his rich friends) are selling the referendums on the boon it will be for the city. They stress that the minimum guaranteed rent to the city is $145.7 million from the first project and $210 million from the second. But what they don’t explain is that this $355 million is over the 99 years. That’s just sneaky.

Do the math. It averages out to about $3.6 million a year. Is that even market value?

In the case of Levine’s team, developers would pay $2 million on the second year of the lease, plus $150,000 once construction starts. Base rent starting the third year will be $150,000, which is so paltry that it increases in year four to $680,000. Every year thereafter the base rent increases between 1.5% and 3% (3% of $680,000 is about $38,000).

On year 52, or in 2074, the rent would reset to $680K a year with annual 2% increases.

Can I get a reset on my rent? Taking it back to what I paid 50 years ago?

What’s the big deal, you ask. These are just ugly parking lots, right?

Well, we’re talking about more than three acres of public land going to developers for only $3.6 million a year. There has been no public competitive process. There have been no public hearings, town halls or charrette to get community input. There has been no public discussion on the best long-term use for the space. The only stated public benefit now is “Class A” office space. There have been no negotiations for more.

Supporters say that comes later, but why? Why can’t residents shape what’s to come there?

Because money rules.

Just how lucrative are these deals? Well, there are eight new political action committees — eight! — formed specifically for this election, which now also has a commission seat on the ballot to fill the vacancy caused by Mark Samuelian’s sudden death in June. The PACs that have reported contributions are almost entirely funded by real estate and developer interests. Half of them have not reported any contributions or expenses yet.

Read related: Fighters Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Alex Fernandez win runoffs in Miami Beach

Meanwhile, only Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez is really actively campaigning against Referendum 5 and 6. She has spent her own money making videos and sending email blasts. She is calling and activating her base of activists.

Gelber and his rich friends are afraid of her influence. That’s why he is having her investigated for asking for public records that anyone can ask for. And it’s why one of the PACs sent a text message that makes it seem like Rosen Gonzalez supports the referendums, even using her image. Sneaky.

The text message is paid for by Yes for a Strong Miami Beach, one of the PACs that have not reported any expenses or contributions yet. But it is obvious that they respect Kristen’s pull.

“Why can’t these savvy and very rich businessmen buy their own land, or at least pay Miami Beach what it’s worth,” Rosen Gonzalez says. “This isn’t our politicians’ land to sell—it belongs to us!”

She accuses Levine and his partners of manipulating the electorate process.

“If the Miami Beach administration would have provided some public charettes before placing Lincoln Lane on the ballot, I bet many residents would have had interesting ideas about what we could build on this land,” Rosen Gonzalez said.

“What would you like to see on our surface parking lots? Cultural centers? Schools? Maybe a Miami Dade or FIU hospitality school? With three acres, maybe even an entire university! Workforce housing? Maybe we could have brought a “Cordon Bleu” school here? Maybe an international piano academy with workforce housing? Maybe a restaurant incubator with affordable rents? I would love to hear ideas,” she said.

“This is why we should VOTE no on Referendum 5 and 6. We weren’t given any choice.”

That’s because this was hatched more than two years ago, when Levine and Gelber were secretly recorded on a conference zoom call with several developers talking about forming a PAC for development projects. Why doesn’t the Miami-Dade state attorney investigate that?

Read related: Dan Gelber and Phil Levine are caught conspiring to auction off Miami Beach

Miami Beach United, a group of active residents who make political recommendations, has also urged voters to vote against 4, 5 and 6.

“While we applaud efforts to diversify our economy away from our historic over-reliance on the hospitality industry, and we recognize that although Lincoln Road, still one of the best amenities in South Beach, needs creative revitalization, we do not believe these projects offer enough benefits to outweigh the significant risks to residents’ quality of life,” the group said in a statement.

“These projects on the surface parking lots represent overdevelopment which will create negative impacts,” MBU said, citing traffic congestion. They also note that Miami Beach has a significant number of office vacancies and four new privately developed office projects in the pipeline.

“The city should not be in the business of competing with the private sector for office tenants with these speculative offices spaces, built on city land,” the group said. “Using the limited public space we have for speculative office space is bad planning policy, bad economic development policy and bad public policy.

“The City should be looking to creatively activate these parcels to either build upon the vision of Miami Beach as an arts and culture destination (a reimagining of the type of attraction provided by the late lamented South Florida Arts Center), or partner with workforce housing specialists to build affordable apartments that our professional staff, teachers, emergency services/health workers, and other ‘missing middle’ members of our community could afford to rent or buy (not microunits) in a centrally-located non-waterfront area that already has density that could absorb more, and create a thriving hub that could reinvigorate the surrounding retail areas (Lincoln Road, Washington, etc.).”

Man, that sounds so much better. Why can’t they be in charge?

Read related: Five candidates qualify for special Miami Beach election to fill vacancy

Voters in Miami Beach will also get to choose who fills the vacancy on the commission caused by the sudden death of Samuelian. There are five candidates running for that seat, but two of them are frontrunners.

Gelber supports Sabrina Cohen, so you just know she will help the rich developer friends that are likely trying to get her elected. Rosen Gonzalez supports Laura Dominguez, who would likely protect residents’ interests.

Vote accordingly, people.