Miami Mayor Brings Building Boom, Criticism

Miami's Cuban-born mayor, Manny Diaz, is credited with a building boom and the city's longest stretch without a corruption scandal. The former attorney for Elian Gonzalez has done all this while downplaying Cuban politics in Miami. But some critics say Diaz has sent the city into a high-rise condo frenzy.

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To local politics now and Miami, where things have long had a Cuban flavor. The city's current Havana-born mayor, Manny Diaz, is downplaying Cuban issues these days. It's part of a bid to attract development to the city. But as NPR's Phillip Davis reports, some residents wonder if the mayor's strategy is working too well.

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Mayor Manny Diaz may seem to fit the mold of other successful Miami politicians. He's a Cuban-American who grew up in America after his father was imprisoned by Castro. Diaz was even a member of the legal team that fought unsuccessfully to keep young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from returning to Cuba.

(Soundbite of street noise)

DAVIS: But while handing out free turkeys in Little Havana recently, Diaz said that the Elian affair made him see that the city's fixation on Cuban exile issues was hurting the city.

Mayor MANNY DIAZ (Independent, Miami): Wherever we come here, most of us are fighters and most of us are entrepreneurs and most of us want to, you know, get along and move up. And we couldn't--we had the potential to build an outstanding city, but we couldn't do it if we were all, you know, in different camps and not talking to each other.

DAVIS: So Diaz put exile politics on the back burner, something he could afford to do with his solid background in Cuban-American politics, and focused instead on Miami's ailing economy.

Mayor DIAZ: The cities around the country have grown, and Miami had stayed stagnant. And one of the things that I think people wanted was to see Miami become an economically strong city and to build our urban core and to build a downtown that was a 24-7 downtown and to bring people living in downtown Miami.

DAVIS: The results of that strategy can be seen here in a neighborhood north of downtown called Wynwood. I'm looking at what used to be an area of warehouses and empty lots and abandoned rail yards, but now in front of me there are construction cranes on nearly every block.

Mr. MICHAEL SAMUEL (Developer): That's actually our first building; that's Midtown 2 under construction. As you see, they're on the 10th floor and going up. And right behind there is actually Mid Block East; that's our second building that's also going up. And actually people will be moving in November, December of 2006, which is 12 months from now.

DAVIS: Developer Michael Samuel is putting up eight condo buildings here, 3,000 units in all, some apartments going for as much as $2.5 million. And Samuel's not even from Miami; he's from New York City. But he'd be one of the first to admit that Miami City Hall has become very friendly for developers.

Mr. SAMUEL: I've dealt with the prior administration, and I never would have done this in the prior administration.

DAVIS: An incredible 70,000 condominium units in dozens of new buildings are now being planned or are under construction. That has led many neighborhood activists to watch Miami's sudden transformation with unease.

Horacio Aguirre(ph) lives in a house off of a leafy bend of the Miami River. He points to a spit of empty land jutting into the water behind his back yard.

Mr. HORACIO AGUIRRE (Miami Resident): The guy that bought that got it rezoned from R1 to R4, and they want to put a high-rise condo there.

DAVIS: Aguirre has heard all the arguments that the city needs the development, but he says he and many of his neighbors are unconvinced.

Mr. AGUIRRE: What we are doing is eliminating the middle class of the city of Miami. There will be two classes of people in Miami, the poor and the elite rich.

DAVIS: Despite those misgivings, Manny Diaz was re-elected last month with 65 percent of the vote with support citywide, not just from Little Havana. Florida International University political scientist Dario Moreno says that the vote gives Diaz freedom to keep the boom going but with this caveat.

Mr. DARIO MORENO (Political Scientist, Florida International University): The challenge for Mayor Diaz, as this building boom plays out, is to really take a creative stance on things like affordable housing, zoning and the preservations of Miami's traditional neighborhoods. I think Miami has an opportunity to make the city a place for all its citizens.

DAVIS: That's something this mayor says he's keenly aware of as he continues to try and attract people rich enough to buy a piece of the city's new skyline. Phillip Davis, NPR News, Miami.

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