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Magic City developers pay $3M to Little Haiti Trust

MIAMI HERALD BY JOEY FLECHAS

Developers planning a towering $1 billion complex on 18 acres in Little Haiti said Monday that they have cut a $3 million check to the city, the first of multiple payments under an agreement that allows bigger, denser construction in exchange for investment in local businesses and affordable housing.

The money comes from the team behind the Magic City Innovation District, a controversial commercial and residential mega-development that two years ago stirred debate among activist groups over how to deal with gentrification in Little Haiti. In June 2019, after months of clamor in the community, Miami commissioners approved the terms of the deal, which included $31 million in payments to a fund that will be managed by a newly created municipal agency that, as of today, does not yet have a board of trustees.

The first payment was announced Monday at a press conference in Little Haiti. The development agreement required the developers, Plaza Equity Partners, to pay the first $3 million within three months after the commission vote became final. A lawsuit from a neighbor who opposed the project challenged the city’s vote and paused the timeline for payment, but a three-judge panel dismissed the complaint in November, clearing the way for Monday’s announcement.

Neil Fairman, one of Plaza Equity’s principals, said the contribution is the start of a long-term investment in the community. Another $3 million payment is due to the new board, the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust, within six months.

“We are extremely thrilled to provide this $3 million check to the Little Haiti Revitalization Trust, which is the first of many,” Fairman said. “The payment to the Trust is part of our promise to empower this vibrant community — to give back and ensure local residents are provided business opportunities, to create meaningful jobs, to build economic prosperity for all, and to preserve the thriving culture of Little Haiti.”

Commissioners approved the creation of the trust many months ago, but the appointment of a board is only now being considered. Miami’s city clerk is accepting applications for the board until 4 p.m., March 12. The board will be made up of five voting members and one non-voting member between 15 and 18 years old.

Commissioner Jeffrey Watson, who represents Little Haiti, will appoint all but one board member, who will be named by City Manager Art Noriega. The appointments are all subject to approval from the rest of the city commission.

A new community board with a multimillion-dollar budget was not always the plan. An earlier proposal included a smaller public kitty and commitments to build workforce housing with the project’s campus.

In early 2019, then-Commissioner Keon Hardemon negotiated a new $31 million package quietly and apart from community activists who either outright opposed the project or wanted a portion of the district’s residential units to be affordably priced. After a contentious hearing where many of those activists were blindsided by the new terms, Hardemon said his deal was an improvement because it guaranteed cash up front as the project is built.

A veteran activist involved in the 2019 debate, Leonie Hermantin, said on Monday she hopes the community’s needs will be recognized by the new board.

“We just have to see who sits on the revitalization trust,” said Hermantin. An advocate for negotiating strong public benefits in the face of gentrification, she stood up during Monday’s press conference to remind officials that members of the Little Haiti community organized and negotiated directly with the project’s developers before Hardemon drove his own deal.

“I had to clarify for history: We did not just sit passively waiting for a savior to come negotiate on our behalf,” Hermantin told the Miami Herald.

On Monday, Hardemon said he was honored to work on a deal that allowed the residents to take the future of the community into their own hands by investing in commercial growth and pushing for affordable housing, including home-ownership.

“This is about wealth-building in a place called Little Haiti,” he said.

Max Sklar, a Plaza Equity vice president, said new commercial and residential construction is expected in early 2022.

“The first vertical development will occur in early 2022 and will be the future headquarters of Motorsports Network, the global market leader for digital platforms at the heart of the auto racing and automotive worlds,” he said.

The Magic City Innovation District has made headlines beyond gentrification arguments and controversial City Hall votes. In March 2019, one of the project’s main investors, Dragon Global CEO Robert Zangrillo, was indicted on federal charges that he conspired to pay a bribe to get his daughter into the University of Southern California. About a week later, Magic City’s developers said Zangrillo was no longer involved in the project. In January, former president Donald Trump pardoned the venture capitalist before leaving the White House.

Neil Fairman, chairman of Plaza Equity Partners, one of the lead developers of the Magic City Innovation District, is photographed on site of the 17-acre mixed-use development project in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood on Tuesday, September 18, 2018. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

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