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Coral Gables residents have been voicing concerns about the potential sale of the surface parking lot at 350 Greco Avenue, which will come before the City Commission on second reading at the May 25th Commission meeting.
Many questions about the deal have arisen since passing on first reading, with a unanimous vote.
Over the weekend, Gables Insider learned about the vote in favor of approving the sale by the City’s Property Advisory Board on March 10, 2021.
According to its charter, the role of the Property Advisory Board is to “consult with and advise the City Manager and staff and the City Commission on all matters involving concessions, sales or leases to organizations, companies, partnerships, individuals and agencies in connection with City-owned property, and make recommendations to the City Commission in this regard.”
The March 10th Meeting
The board took up the potential sale of the property at their March 10th meeting. Although the City places the agendas and corresponding documentation for board meetings on its website, the agenda and documentation for this meeting are not available. However, in a rarity for board meetings, the City claims to be understaffed and unable to have someone to take minutes. The City hired a court reporter who took verbatim minutes at the meeting.
Reading through the transcript is concerning. The timeline presented and the questions asked by board members, who are there to advise the Commission, resulted in half-truths and misinformation by staff:
The timeline of this project poses many questions. Gables Insider asked for a timeline from the City and was provided with the following:
“On Dec. 28, 2018 the City received a letter of interest for lot 31 (parking lot on Greco and LeJeune) from BF Group (Lester Garcia and Jose Boschetti) owners of the two parcels to the south of Lot 31. In May 2019, the City was also approached by ZOM Living, the owners of the parcels to the east of Lot 31 who expressed interest in acquiring the lot. On May 14, 2019 the City Commission directed the City Manager to work with the two distinct developers to evaluate options for the sale and/or development of Lot 31, and provide recommendations to the City Commission on how to achieve those options.
At the Property Advisory Board meeting, the item was presented by Zeida C. Sardinas, the City’s Asset Manager, who works in the Economic Development Department. Sardinas explained in her timeline that the City had been approached “by the owners of the two adjacent lots to the south of the parking lot, and they expressed an interest in purchasing the property from the city, which — so we went ahead and contracted for an appraisal.”
However, there is no mention that the property, which had been owned by LG Ponce III, LLC since 2012 was sold for $4,170,000 on November 13, 2019 to 4601 Coral Gables Property, LLC and that the initial discussions were with the previous owners of the lots. Sardinas made no mention of this sale or change in ownership during her presentation.
The Appraised Value
Board Member Alberto Manrara asked Sardinas if the city was “advertising this for sale. It’s just dealing with the one?” Sardinas replied by stating that, “It was unsolicited. They came to us because they owned the other two [lots].” Manrara replied, “Right, and is it the city’s experience that when you just react to one interested party, that the city is able to obtain the highest and best value?”
Sardinas went on to explain that the Commission had given the manager authority to pursue this sale after being contacted by the neighbors. As previously reported, it was approved by the City Commission at the May 14, 2019 Commission meeting. “We conduct an appraisal, and then we wait and say, ‘This is the appraisal we have,’ and they, actually the appraisal that we had was for 3.35, and they made an offer for 3.5. They made an offer that was higher than the appraisal we had at the time. The second appraisal came back $25,000 higher, but we were confident that the three five number was fine,” said Sardinas.
Manrara asked, “is the value to the developer because it has already lots there and that for them the incremental worth of having additional land makes it more valuable to them, that if somebody else were just going to buy the 13,000-and-change-square-feet space, they really couldn’t do very much with it because it’s a relatively small space?”
Sardinas answered, “their lots are sufficiently large that they don’t need our lot to give them any additional FAR or any additional bonuses to be able to build more, bigger, higher, they do not, they do not need it, but it would make for a nicer looking project if you go from the one end of the street to the other.”
The discussion on the appraised value was also a revealing one. The latest appraisal took place just 28 days prior to this meeting, giving a valuation of $3,525,000 for the property.
The Board Chair, Valerie Quemada an experienced realtor in Coral Gables, also shared concerns with the valuation. “Looking at today’s market trends and looking at everything that is going on, I would imagine you put that and open that up to a larger selection of people and you may be able to drive that price up. It really is based on what the desire of the city is: Do you want to just make a quick and easy deal and it’s not a bad price; or do you want to go out there and see if you can go ahead and get some more money for it?”
Who Is Involved In The Deal?
Manrara asked during the discussion who the developer was? Sardinas response was “the person that I have met with is Jose Boschetti.” Manrara followed up with a simple question, “And you don’t know anybody else who is involved?” Sardinas replied, “I also met with Leo [Gomez], and I believe he’s the architect.”
Manrara also asked, “So you really don’t know who is behind this?” Sardinas responded, “Jose Boschetti is a well-known developer. He’s got —
Manrara also asked, “The attorneys representing the developer, any relation to the former commissioner of Coral Gables?” The attorneys handling the matter on behalf of the buyer is Quesada Valdes, the firm of former Vice Mayor Frank C. Quesada’s father, G. Frank Quesada and his partner, Juan C. Valdes. Here is the verbatim interaction:
MS. SARDINAS: I believe so, I believe so.
MR. MANRARA: So the Quesada who is part of the lawyers representing the developer is the former commissioner?
MS. SARDINAS: No, it is not the former commissioner.
MR. MANRARA: Oh, it is not the former commissioner?
MS. SARDINAS: I don’t think that is his law firm, no.
MR. MANRARA: Okay.
MS. SARDINAS: It’s not him.
MR. MANRARA: All right. Thank you.
MS. SARDINAS: And the lawyer that has signed at least all of the things that have come through the city has been Valdes, which is one of the partners of the firm, but I do believe that, that, that the law firm is either his father’s or a relative. I’m not sure.
MR. MANRARA: Oh, so the Quesada may be connected to the commissioner?
MS. SARDINAS: No.
MR. MANRARA: Oh, you just said it might be the father, but then —
MS. SARDINAS: I think he might be a relative or the father or the law firm —
MR. MANRARA: Okay, but you don’t know for sure.
MS. SARDINAS: — of the father, but I came here after that commissioner was gone so I don’t know.
In other words, the Property Advisory Board provided the names of the architect and builder of the upcoming project, but failed to mention that one of the buyers is former Vice Mayor Frank C. Quesada. Even when asked who else is involved, Sardinas never mentions the buyers of the lot, Quesada and John H. Ruiz.
The Alley Bonus
Board Vice Chairman, Jack Lowell, asked about the future of the alley between the two lots. “is [it] being vacated by the city?” Sardinas, was not sure. “I’m not a hundred percent sure. I will find this question out for you. But what happened, the reason why I’m telling you that is because when that project was presented, I was sitting on the development review committee, and I remember the conversation of the alley from those meetings, but again, they were almost like two years ago so it’s not top of mind for me right now, so I will find out — what is happening with the alley — if we are vacating it for the project in the back?” Lowell added, “I’m sure it’s being vacated. You vacate an alley for the benefit of the adjoining property owner so they each get half of the alley. Effectively the site is bigger if the alley is vacated, just so you’re aware.” Begging the question, is more land being given to the developer on this project? Sardinas was not sure what the final decision had been on the alley.
Although the Property Advisory Board was discussing an issue specifically dealing with parking, the parking director, Kevin Kinney, never made it to the meeting during the discussion. Several parking questions remained unanswered.
The board eventually voted in favor of the project with Manrara being the only dissenting vote.