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Thinking Big Triggers Big-Time Fears PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
April 2017

Little Haiti mega-project rattles locals

For many people, Sunday evenings are a time to relax and prepare for another weeklong grind.

But on March 26, dozens of people opted to skip their Sunday night television shows and their family dinners. Instead, they gathered to talk about Eastside Ridge, a propEastsideRidge_1osed high-rise community with thousands of apartment and hotel units that could replace a 22-acre apartment complex at 5045 NE 2nd Ave. in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

The meeting, which took place at the Little Haiti Community Center, was a chance for the team of the property owner, SPV Realty, to discuss plans to build as many as 2798 residences, 418 hotel rooms, 283,798 square feet of retail space, 97,103 square feet of office space, 4636 parking spaces, and a train station in a planned development designed by architect Kobi Karp. The buildings would range between 123 and 403 feet in height.

If built, the Eastside Ridge project would succeed Design Place, the two-story, 512-unit apartment complex that is currently located between NE 2nd Avenue, the Florida East Coast railroad tracks, NE 54th Street, and the Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame high school, slated to close soon.

Current zoning on the land permits only 1460 residential units in buildings capped at 81 feet in height.

Design Place’s owners are seeking extra density under the city’s Miami 21 zoning code that allows owners who control more than nine acres of contiguous land to seek permission from the Miami City Commission to form a special area plan, or SAP.

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Many who attended the March 26 meeting were aghast at the size and scale of the Eastside Ridge project. Those living in the nearby communities of Buena Vista and the Upper Eastside fretted about the increase in traffic that Eastside Ridge will likely generate.

“You saw what happened with the traffic when 36th and 39th streets closed down this week,” says Robin Porter, board member of the Buena Vista East Historic Homeowners Association. Porter was referring to the traffic tie-ups that occurred when those streets were closed while Florida East Coast Railroad worked on the crossings for the future Brightline passenger train for the downtown areas of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyam (Haitian Women of Miami), is worried about something else -- the erasure of Little Haiti, a Miami neighborhood venerated by many Haitians living in South Florida and beyond. “This is going to change the face of Little Haiti forever,” she tells the BT.

Bastien and other activists fear Eastside Ridge will fast-track the gentrification that’s already taking place in Little Haiti. In an area where the median household income is around $30,000 a year, rents now average $1244 a month, and restaurants and office studios are gradually replacing family-owned Haitian businesses.

“This is a rather poor and struggling neighborhood that’s on the brink of breaking -- and this could tip it over the edge,” says Boukman Mangones, a Haitian-American architect who wrote a three page critique of the Eastside Ridge project.

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Ric Katz, executive vice president of Balsera Communications and a spokesman for the Eastside Ridge project, insists this isn’t a luxury-themed project. “We’re talking about workforce housing,” he says. “We expect our renters to be firefighters, policemen, nurses, young doctors, people who work across the street at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital, people who work in offices downtown.”

The hotels, Katz says, will be marketed to people visiting family members in Miami.

Eastside Ridge isn’t the only mega-project being proposed in the city. This past September, after more than a year of negotiations, the Miami City Commission approved Mana Wynwood, a 9.7-million-square-foot mini city. Just west of Design Place, the operators of Miami Jewish Health Systems (formerly Miami Jewish Home and Hospital) are seeking a SAP for new buildings on their 20-acre nursing home campus.

Meanwhile, Metro 1 Properties’ Tony Cho and financier Bob Zangrillo intend to file plans for their own SAP to build a $1 billion innovation center on 12 acres they own in Little Haiti at NE 2nd Avenue and NE 60th Street.

And then there’s the Legion District, a 1.3 million-square-foot project that developer Brian Pearl and his partners want to build near Legion Park in the Upper Eastside neighborhood of Bayside. Pearl wants to create a SAP there, too, even though he is 1.7 acres short of the required nine acres.

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His way around it? Partner with the City of Miami and include a chunk of Legion Park in the SAP district. Pearl’s plans sparked outrage throughout the Upper Eastside. (See “This Land Is Your Land -- Or Should Be,” February 2017.) Those plans are now in limbo after the city, on March 23, imposed a 240-day moratorium on SAPs within 500 feet of Biscayne Bay.

These mega-projects inspired the formation of the Little Haiti Advisory Group, an alliance of organizations interested in the future of Little Haiti.

“We’re worried about them all because it’s going to affect us one way or another, regardless if it’s in the boundaries of Little Haiti,” says Fayola Delica, a political consultant and a former candidate for state representative.

But it isn’t just about Eastside Ridge itself. There are also worries about the complex’s owners, who have been sued twice for housing discrimination and are connected to a controversial history in New York.

“They don’t have a good track record,” says Bastien, later adding, “We are also learning more and more about these owners from what they did in New York. So we are concerned, but we are also keeping an open mind.”

SPV Realty is registered to Sharon Olsen. East Ridge LLC, a company created in April 2016 for the purpose of transforming Design Place into Eastside Ridge, is owned by Olsen and Shirley Reinfeld, according to documents filed with the City of Miami.

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Sharon Olsen is married to Jay Podolsky. Shirley Reinfeld is married to Jay’s brother, Stuart “Stewie” Podolsky. The Podolsky brothers, along with their father Zenek Podolsky (who died in 2015), pleaded guilty to 37 felonies in 1984 in connection with a scheme to hire “professional vacators” to intimidate rent-control tenants from three buildings they owned in New York City.

“A leader called ‘Bear’ was allegedly installed as the superintendent, and apartments were filled with hustlers, prostitutes, and junkies,” according to a December 2013 New York Magazine exposé on the Podolsky family. The article was headlined “Why Run a Slum If You Can Make More Money Housing the Homeless?”

“One elderly woman died of pneumonia in an unheated room,” according to the article. “The vacators received $600 for each departing tenant.” Zenek Podolsky was sentenced to 90 days in jail while his sons were given probation. In exchange for such a light sentence, Zenek provided evidence in a public-corruption case and donated the three apartment buildings to the Coalition for the Homeless. Upon hearing the sentence, tenants nearly rioted in the courtroom, according to the New York Post, and screamed “Scum!”

In more recent years, the Podolsky family has been involved in renovating old apartment buildings and turning them into boutique hotels, and also operating 40 dilapidated buildings as for-profit “shelter properties” housing 1300 families, according to the same New York Magazine article, authored by Andrew Rice.

In a July 2015 South Hampton Press article, Jay Podolsky denied that he, his brother, or his father owned shelter properties in New York City. Rice, though, pointed out that the shelter properties were placed in the names of the brothers’ wives, Olsen and Reinfeld, to “take pains to keep a deniable arm’s length from the shelter business” owing to the felony convictions of Jay and Stewart. (A lawyer for Jay and Stewart Podolsky told Rice his clients had little to do with Zenek’s nefarious tenant intimidating schemes. “They were children and were told, basically, ‘You either plead to the entire indictment or your father goes to jail,’” said attorney David Satnick, as quoted by New York Magazine.)

In January 2000, Olsen’s SPV Realty paid $10.6 million for a Little Haiti apartment complex, built in 1948, called Sabal Palm Court. During the 1980s, Sabal Palm Court’s tenants were “100 percent Haitian,” Bastien says. Among the residents was firebrand priest Gerard Jean-Juste, who led protests against social injustice and U.S. immigration policy, says Fayola Delica, a niece of Jean-Juste who lived in the complex when she was a toddler.

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When SPV Realty took over, the complex’s name was changed to Design Place, the rents were raised, and the Haitian families moved on. Today, Bastien asserts, there isn’t a single tenant of Haitian descent living in Design Place, where monthly rentals range from $1300 to $1800 a month.

SPV Realty has also been sued twice by a Florida non-profit called Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, for housing discrimination -- in November 2012 and December 2014 -- after the group’s black “testers” were told that no apartments were available, while white testers were offered tours and leases. The 2012 case was settled, with SPV Realty being required to post signs explaining the Fair Housing Act throughout Design Place. The 2014 case is still under litigation, Katz confirms. (For more details see “The Upper Eastside Transformed,” September 2016.)

Katz says the old management of Design Place was fired two years ago and that its management since then, seven days a week, is overseen by Justin Podolsky, the 32-year-old son of Sharon Olsen and Jay Podolsky, and Justin’s cousin Lee Podolsky.

“The generation they grew up in is a different environment than [Justin’s] parents or grandparents,” Katz asserts. Justin and Lee are also determined to run an above-board operation at Design Place and at the future Eastside Ridge project, Katz adds, which would be built in phases and wouldn’t likely break ground for several years.

During the March 26 community meeting, Kobi Karp, the project’s architect, explained that Eastside Ridge will use Caribbean-inspired art in its public plazas and parks, created by Little Haiti artists, and even by local children who attend art classes at the proposed community center.

Meeting attendees, in turn, suggested design elements that could include a statute commemorating victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a “Welcome to Little Haiti” sign, or even renaming the project after Little Haiti.

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Edward Martos, a land-use attorney representing the developers, said at the meeting that the project would also reserve ten percent of the construction jobs and permanent jobs on-site for Little Haiti residents. Those with criminal records would not be disqualified and job training would be offered, Martos added.

Five percent of subcontractor jobs would be set aside for businesses that are minority- or women-led, Martos continued, with a preference given to Little Haiti-based businesses. And, Martos declared, 20,000 square feet of retail would be reserved for any small businesses in Little Haiti who wished to relocate to Eastside Ridge. The developers would even consider creating an incubator for Little Haiti residents interested in starting their own businesses, Martos said.

As for the tenants living in Design Place now, Katz says they “can expect a discounted rate [in Eastside Ridge], once the new buildings are ready to be occupied.”

Marleine Bastien says economic opportunities are another important issue related to the project, especially in light of the “high unemployment rate” in the Little Haiti area. “We need to keep their feet to the fire … to [make sure] they keep their word,” she says. “Otherwise, Little Haiti will be kept out, like the stepchild of the City of Miami.”

Katz says the developers will communicate with “working groups” from Little Haiti to address concerns about the project. The developers also plan to hold meetings with homeowner groups in the Upper Eastside and Buena Vista as well. The developers have even set up a website, Eastsideridge.com.

Says Katz: “We’re trying to talk to people all over the area.”

 

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