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Jul 18th
Face-off: North Miami vs.FIU PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
July 2018

In a high-stakes test of wills, the city and the university prepare for a clash over access to the Biscayne Bay campus

FMarch31ACEprotestSamVanLeertalkinglorida International University’s long-coveted second route to its Biscayne Bay campus now runs through Gainesville via Tallahassee.

Thanks to legislators from North Central Florida, there is now an official hostage: Arch Creek East Nature Preserve, 13 acres of mangrove, woodland, and winding creek in North Miami. One can argue that there’s another hostage: the powers of home rule for Florida cities.

Above all, there’s the main prize: a half-century-old, two-lane road closed to motor traffic and favored by cyclists, strollers, skaters, joggers, dog walkers, and bird and plant enthusiasts. The city -- spurred by Councilman Scott Galvin and then-Mayor Kevin Burns -- created the preserve in 2007 to check development between 135th Street and the FIU campus.

For two decades FIU has wanted to expand the road to four lanes and open it to cars. Four times FIU tried and failed to open that road. After running into hostile resistance from the City of North Miami and residents in early 2011, the university tried and failed to get the county to open the road, and then, in 2013, almost succeeded in getting former State Sen. Gwen Margolis to insert language in a bill that would open the road for hurricane evacuation. Last year, the City of North Miami threw up another barrier by declaring the wide medians along 135th Street, a county thoroughfare, as “passive parks.”

This year, however, FIU finally got what it wanted. Through a carefully planned legislative blitzkrieg, the university marshaled an army of lobbyists in the final days of the legislative session, twisting arms and hitting phones to insert language in multiple bills. On the night of March 9, it succeeded with an amendment to HB 215, a motor vehicle bill dealing mostly with three-wheeled motorcycles, also called “autocycles.”

That amendment gives state universities priority over cities in securing a second route into or out of any campus. In arguing for the provision, FIU cited student safety in the wake of the February 14 Parkland massacre. The final bill vote was overwhelming, passing 33-3 in the Senate and 91-10 in the House.

The law is in effect starting July 1.

Bulldozers are not about to crash through the gates -- not right away. Negotiating, planning, permitting, and possible court battles lie ahead, with parallel discussion of the costs and benefits of alternate routes. While the nature preserve road is at first glance the least expensive (estimated at $11 million in 2011, if you don’t count potential negative effects on residential property values in the condos and townhouses along NE 135th Street), residents, city officials, and many advocates prefer an entrance through the burgeoning $4 billion SoLēMia development, with plans for more than 4000 apartments or condos and 1 million square feet of retail.

That route, which would include a bridge over mangroves, could cost $40 million. There’s even talk of a route from NE 163rd Street through the western service roads for Oleta River State Park.

FIU did not return requests for comment, and SoLēMia declined to respond. President Mark Rosenberg congratulated the legislature for its foresight, citing the safety of students at FIU.

FIU is also reeling from the deadly March 15 bridge collapse at the university’s main campus, and it’s too early to judge the ultimate fallout on the university as the facts and lawsuits come in.

March31protestatArchCreekEastPreserve

On the North Miami chessboard, however, FIU just took a bishop -- if not the queen. The university has big plans for its Biscayne Bay campus, including a hospital and a hotel to crown its Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, which has a partnership with Marriott.

Sea level rise is another matter. Hurricane Irma’s surge last September extended 70 feet into the campus.

As far as FIU’s ambitions go, Rosenberg plays the long game and is not averse to brass knuckles. He often repeats his mission to “turn the impossible into the inevitable.”

For years the university has demonstrated this resolve 25 miles to the southwest at the main Modesto A. Maidique campus, where it has for eight years sought to dislodge the Miami-Dade Youth Fair and Exposition from 64 acres in adjacent Tamiami Park and move it to Homestead. FIU got a county referendum passed in 2014 to make it legal for the university to operate on the fairgrounds, if the university and Youth Fair can agree on terms, which they haven’t.

FIU tried to pressure the county commission and even threatened eminent domain, although the fair’s 1971 lease with the county preceded FIU’s official opening by one year, and lasts until 2085.

After the March 9 vote in Tallahassee, protests came hard and fast from North Miami. Galvin said he presented to Gov. Rick Scott a petition with 2000 signatures requesting a veto. The city council closed ranks in opposition. Roughly 200 protestors converged on the preserve on March 31 with bullhorns and TV cameras.

Cory Waldman, a resident of NE 135th Street and president of the Arch Creek East Neighborhood Association, has little faith that FIU is interested in an alternate route.

“At the end of the day, FIU wants 135th Street, end of story,” Waldman told the city council. “Their only point of negotiation is the number of hours this road will be open.”

Sam Van Leer, president of the Urban Paradise Guild and one of the protest organizers, says the campaign against FIU will require guile and fortitude.

“We don’t want people to get complacent,” says Van Leer, who for five years has led groups planting native species in the preserve. “I don’t want to take the foot off the gas pedal in terms of community involvement.”

Galvin, whose city district includes the preserve, says the city council is planning a meeting with SoLēMia to discuss alternate routes nearby. Galvin secured a $2 million commitment to help pay for an alternate route to FIU from Oleta Partners, which SoLēMia bought out in 2015, and that commitment remains with the new owners.

Galvin, an FIU alumnus, has long believed that FIU’s goal is to put a hotel on campus with access from NE 135th Street.

“They moved in the shadows and used legislators from the north part of the state to advance their dubious agenda, and used the tragedy of Parkland to advance their cause,” Galvin says. “They should be looking at their business to make friends, not enemies.”

Rep. Keith Perry, a Republican of Gainesville, sponsored the critical amendment in HB 215, which mentions FIU nowhere in the text.

October2011KevinBurnsandScottGalvinRep. Bobby Payne, a Republican from Palatka, sponsored the bill. Co-sponsors include two Democrats: Rep. Joe Geller, whose district actually includes the preserve and all of North Miami east of U.S. 1; and Kristin Jacobs, whose district includes Parkland.

Asked about his vote by the BT at a mayor’s luncheon at FIU’s Kovens Center in early May, Geller, in as many words, said he didn’t realize exactly what hit him.

“Candidly, that bill came up, it was attached to something,” Geller said. “I’d been contacted by FIU, and a second access for any university in case of an emergency seemed like a great idea.” Geller, whose district extends east of U.S. 1 from Dania Beach through North Miami, said he hadn’t been aware of the nature preserve issue until Councilman Scott Galvin told him after he’d voted.

Geller said repeatedly at the luncheon that he’d had to take a poison pill, or “Sophie’s Choice” provisions, with “must-pass” legislation on various matters.

FIU’s lobbying efforts overwhelmed even super-lobbyist Ron Book, who counts the City of North Miami among his many clients and doesn’t represent the university.

“They not only had their lobbyists (internal and external),” Book says in an e-mail exchange with the BT, “they had board members who visited Tallahassee and board members who were working the phones, working the e-mails. If you had said there were 50 people working it, it would not have surprised me.”

FIU’s principal in-house lobbyist, Michelle Lorenzo Palacio, led the Tallahassee effort. She’s the daughter of well-known Miami political consultant Al Lorenzo.

Geller says he is exploring with FIU and the greater community alternate routes through SoLēMia from its main entrance at NE 143rd Street and looping south over mangroves to the main FIU campus.

“I don’t want to see people on eastern end of 135th Street unfairly targeted,” Geller says. Book and Geller both express optimism over a satisfactory resolution.

The City of North Miami’s history has been bound up with that land for a long time. For 20 years starting in 1950, the 1600 acres stretching from NE 163rd to NE 135th streets and west to Biscayne Boulevard were envisioned as Interama, a planned permanent exhibition of the Americas that never got off the ground. The Arch Creek East roadbed was called Interama Road.

That Interama land now includes Oleta River State Park, the FIU Biscayne Bay campus, and SoLēMia, with the Arch Creek East Nature Preserve being FIU’s coveted link.

The city council has consistently opposed the project, but councils and opinions can change. FIU has worked to partner with the city, guiding city officials on a junket through China in 2016 in the city’s efforts to create a “Chinatown” district along NW 7th Avenue. FIU hosts the Marriott Tianjin China Program in partnership with the Chaplin School. It is FIU’s largest international program, with a capacity of up to 1000 students.

University administrations can change, too.

For now, Rosenberg, president since 2009, has the confidence of the trustees, who unanimously voted June 6 to give the 68-year-old, who is currently serving his second five-year term, a one-year extension on his contract, through the 2019-20 school year, with a $100,000 retention bonus on top of his $502,579 salary. (FIU Panthers football coach Butch Davis makes $900,000.)

Citizens and council members have pressed the City of North Miami to sue FIU over home rule, but the city is holding its fire until FIU makes the next move. If that happens, North Miami has a friend in the Florida League of Cities, which alongside the National League of Cities is finding that state legislatures are preempting city power around the country.

For the city, the next stop is SoLēMia, the partnership between the real estate dynasties of the Soffers of Aventura and the LeFraks of New York. Chairman and CEO Richard LeFrak is a confidant of President Trump and is his go-to source for infrastructure.

LeFrak is noted for his work in transforming Jersey City’s gritty skyline into the gleaming Newport mixed-use development over old railyards and the Hudson River.

The coming months will likely require creativity and more parties at the table than just FIU and the City of North Miami.

 

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