Skepticism and distrust have seemed to surround Carlos Gimenez's long, arduous path to rebuild Liberty Square, the county's oldest public housing project. But on Thursday, Miami-Dade's mayor proved other sentiments exist in Liberty City, too, like hope, and even excitement.
For the first time since choosing a developer to rebuild the hundreds of units inside the outdated row houses off of Northwest 62nd Street and 12th Avenue, Gimenez presented Related Urban Development Group's $307 million plan to the residents most affected. He wase welcomed with applause by a standing-room only crowd. And a presentation of the plan to build more than 1,500 housing units, shops and community facilities in Liberty City and in Brownsville even received cheers.
"I want this project to bring us closer together. This is not about politics. It's not about personal gain," said Gimenez. "This is about the people who have been living in our county's oldest public housing project and people who are long overdue for an update."
Clearly, the project still has staunch opponents. Ten days ago, a group of South Florida pastors requested the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigate the county's process for choosing a developer. On Monday, some of those same clergy members hosted a protest outside the same community center where Gimenez made his pitch Thursday. And some residents remained dubious Thursday about whether any of Gimenez's promises could be trusted.
"They're still jaded by Hope VI," Gimenez said after the meeting, referencing the early 2000s redevelopment of the county's Scott Carver housing project that replaced more than 800 housing units with less than 200, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of families. "They're jaded by Scott Carver."
But the mayor said he was "energized" by Thursday's gathering. And the reaction to his presentation alongside Related Urban principal Albert Milo showed residents can be won over. In regards to the Scott Carver fiasco, they stressed that no one who lives in Liberty Square will be put out because of the project.
"I saw the layout, and I feel much better," said Phyllis Singleton, who lives in Liberty Square with her daughter and grandkids. "I feel much safer. I'm over by 13th Avenue where they have all those shootings. I had a bullet removed from my grandson's bedroom, so I know."
Some residents had basic questions Thursday about, say, the price of rent and whether residents will be relocated during the project. Rosemary Thomas still wants to know where people are going to park.
"How do we get back?" Diedre Mitchell asked, inquiring about whether residents will be asked to move to make way for new development.
"You'll never have to leave," Milo responded.
County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who represents Liberty City, remained critical of Gimenez's developer selection process Thursday, but touted Related Urban's redevelopment plan.
"There have been people knocking on their doors saying people are going to put them out," she said. "What I'm going to start by saying is that this is a good project. I'm not trying to stop the project or prevent it from happening but I will defend my community."
Among Gimenez's biggest selling points Thursday:
The county will replace every public housing unit at Liberty Square and build additional units at Lincoln Gardens, 4701 nw 24th court
The project will create more than 6,000 jobs, with public housing and low-income residents assured a 20 percent share of construction jobs and 75 percent share of jobs located in the completed project once it's done. The project includes a set-aside of roughly $90 million for small- and minority-owned subcontractors.
Residents will finally have access to basic amenities like central air, free wireless internet, a pool, healthcare center and major grocery store
"That will be absolutely wonderful, to be able to go to a grocery store, not just a corner store," said assistant public housing director Julie Edwards.
County commissioners have the final say on what is built, if anything. But if Gimenez's plans go smoothly, Related Urban believes it will break ground in November and complete the project in five years.