I know Patrick," Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum declared at the April 3 Council meeting. "I know him personally. I knew his wife. I knew his momma. I know all of them."
The Patrick in question is Patrick Aliu, president and CEO of PSA Constructors Inc. And, as that Council meeting demonstrated, it pays to be Lynum's friend, because PSA is on its way to landing a lucrative contract over the vehement objection of an advisory board the city uses to vet redevelopment deals.
The story begins in December 2005, when PSA and Tienta Holdings LLC became the only two companies to respond to a "request for proposals," or RFP, in which the city seeks the best bidder for a development project. The project is Otey Place, a vacant, 3.5-acre chunk of land just across Parramore Avenue from the Centroplex that the city has been cobbling together since 1990. PSA proposed erecting about three dozen single-family and town houses on the site, exactly the kind of low-density, neighborhood development city officials sought.
In March, a city selection committee ranked PSA the better of the two bids, and the proposal went to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board, made up of an Orange County commissioner and a handful of influential engineers and lawyers. (Though the CRA is run by the city, it uses some tax dollars that would otherwise go to the county; this seat on the advisory board, however, is the county's only check on what the city does with that money.)
The CRA's advisory board didn't like what they saw. PSA was offering the city just over $250,000 for land that could fetch at least double some estimates say 10 times that figure on the open market. PSA has no experience as a residential developer, and its price projections were, for lack of a better term, ridiculous. The company drew on comparable real-estate prices from lakefront properties on Orlando's east side, which are generally more appealing than homes in high-crime, drug-infested neighborhoods like Parramore. PSA wanted to sell its homes for between $162,000 and $500,000, though to save money it wanted to import "modular" homes from a company near Tampa, rather than build the units on site.
On March 22, the CRA advisory board unanimously rejected both PSA's and Tienta's bids and put out a new RFP to attract more and more qualified bidders. The advisory board also wanted to eliminate the low-density restrictions that city staffers insisted on for the property. That was a matter of simple economics: If there were more units, a would-be developer wouldn't have to set such unrealistic sales prices to make a profit, and the city wouldn't have to take such a huge loss in selling the property. And if the redevelopment were more feasible, perhaps the city would get more than just two bids.
But city staffers including CRA director Frank Billingsley and assistant director Joyce Sellen, who have been working on this project for 15 years forged ahead, taking the proposals to the City Council on April 3. There, at Lynum's insistence, the City Council overruled its CRA advisory board, voting 4-2 to allow staffers to negotiate a contract with PSA.
While the City Council is certainly allowed to reject the CRA advisory board's recommendations, it's unusual. The advisory board has historically been seen as a rubber stamp for the city's agenda. "I've made appointments with the board because I felt they haven't been strict enough," says commissioner Patty Sheehan, one of the two Council members who voted to reject PSA's bid.
In fact, in the history of the city's downtown CRA program, which dates to 1980, this is the first time the City Council has ever rejected the advisory board's recommendation, according to city officials.
This isn't the first time Lynum has scored a good deal for her buddies, though. In 2004 and 2005, she engineered a sweetheart land sale for the Black Business Investment Fund of Central Florida for another swath of Parramore real estate, a project known as the Carver Theater redevelopment. The city sold the BBIF the land for less than $15 per square foot, though another property sold across the street in 2004 on the market for more than $42 per square foot. Not coincidentally, Lynum sits as an unpaid volunteer on the not-for-profit BBIF's board of directors.
In 2003, BBIF also tried to get in on the Otey Place deal. BBIF president Inez Long formed a for-profit company, Urban Renaissance Development LLC, and became the only bidder for the first RFP the city put out for the land, with BBIF as a partner. URD proposed that the city sell them the land for $1 and give them $2.5 million on top of that to cover construction costs. That proposal failed to make it past the city's selection committee.
BBIF is also part of PSA's bid. In a January letter Aliu wrote to attempt to sway the selection committee, BBIF's inclusion was seen as an asset: "I want to draw your attention to the inclusion of BBIF as a partner with PSA on this development. … By combining with PSA there is no greater commitment to Parramore than two companies, PSA and BBIF who have not only supported the re-birth of the Parramore District but have actually started development projects of their own in Parramore." (PSA is constructing office space in the neighborhood.)
From the outset of the April 3 City Council meeting, Lynum and city staffers' positions were obvious. Three staffers made a half-hour presentation to the City Council, each emphasizing that 25 years ago, the city had promised Parramore's poor, soon-to-be-displaced black residents that they would build a low-density neighborhood on the Otey Place spot. One, housing director Lelia Allen, told commissioners that even though the sales prices included in PSA's bid seemed unrealistic, they were up for negotiation. Lynum invited Orange County commissioner Homer Hartage and former state Rep. Alzo Reddick to implore the Council to act now, even if PSA's proposal wasn't all the city hoped for, because rebidding the project would only slow renovation efforts.
When two commissioners Sheehan and Phil Diamond questioned aspects of the development, Lynum got defensive. Sheehan pointed out that the city had a better track record with high-density redevelopments, and that with a starting price of $162,000, no displaced Parramore residents would be moving into Otey Place, so why worry about a 25-year-old promise that didn't make sense?
"I've supported every other [CRA] development," Sheehan said. "I can't do [this one]."
In response, Lynum lectured her on "naysayers not wanting Parramore to progress," and added, "I'm glad the CRA advisory board is not elected."
Lynum urged her colleagues to trust her: "I know the details that other people do not know," she said. "And you don't need to know. But you need to follow my lead and let me represent the people who elect me to represent them. I'm going to always do what's right."
Diamond wondered why the city couldn't require PSA to finish the project in two years, and why the city couldn't share in some of PSA's profits, seeing as it was practically giving away the property.
Lynum all but called him racist in response. "There is a perpetual struggle when we go to the west side," she told him. "We don't make these requirements on the east side. … We've got to stop this struggle when it comes to the west side. Look at me. I'm the only thing up here who looks like I used to be there or was there."
Moments later, she pointed out that the new Parramore won't be mostly black. "It's a minority community that will not be a minority community for long," she said. "We're gonna guarantee that. You give me three years and there will not be … never mind."
After staffers negotiate an agreement with PSA over the next few months, that agreement will come back to a Council that will look a bit different than the one that convened April 3. Commissioner Vicki Vargo, who voted for PSA, lost her re-election bid to Robert Stuart, who has been a vocal critic of Lynum's Parramore policies. And the seat left vacant by Ernest Page after his felony indictment will either be filled by Mable Butler or Sam Ings after the May 9 firstname.lastname@example.org