Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By David Ovalle, David Smiley and Nicholas Nehamas
Published June 1, 2017
The tax-funded renovation of Town Park Plaza North, a
crumbling Overtown community of more than 100 families, was touted as a new
beginning for one of Miami’s most impoverished and neglected neighborhoods.
But two years after breaking ground, the ambitious $15 million project has
been mired in delays, conflicts and cost-overruns. Renovations have finished
at just three of Town Park’s 20 condo buildings, less than half of what
planners expected to complete by now.
Families told they’d have gleaming new
homes have been exiled to temporary housing for more than a
year. Those who live in units still awaiting renovation have
to battle rotting pipes, swarms of roaches and broken air
Few want to invest in pricey repairs because their units
will be gutted — some day.
“They made it sound so beautiful,” said resident Chris
Little, whose first-floor unit floods with sewage from pipe
breaks. “It’s not right what they’re doing.”
Executives of the Miami redevelopment agency funding the
project say they’re pushing the general contractor to
complete five more buildings by mid-June and get back on
track. But problems run deep.
A Miami Herald review of the project found poor planning,
questionable spending and the selection of an inexperienced
contractor have slowed Town Park’s revitalization, leaving
residents angry and confused.
Revitalization was supposed to come to Overtown's
Town Park Plaza North but instead residents are experiencing dismay
and frustration, as remodeling has yet to be done on their
Among the most troubling aspects:
Despite limited progress, the development team has
already spent at least $9 million — or 60 percent of the project’s
budget — with more than $1 million going to move and house residents
displaced by the slow pace of construction. Nearly one in four of the 73
relocated families has been out of their homes longer than a year.
Ola Aluko, the president of nonprofit St. John
Community Development Corporation, which is overseeing relocation
efforts, has been paid at least $217,900 through his separate private
company, of which he’s the only employee. Those costs include interviews
with tenants and unit owners billed to the public at $550 a pop. In one
case, an owner told the Herald that interview never took place — and
said his signature had been written on a document without his
Redevelopment officials rushed to break ground on the
project without completing a basic survey. An initial assessment was so
hasty that the contractor thought Town Park was made up just of one- and
two-bedroom condos. In fact, some of the condos have three or four
bedrooms — a clearly avoidable surprise that officials say could add as
much as $4.4 million to the final bill.
The project’s general contractor, Miami Gardens-based
Mastermind Construction, has no track record of completing large-scale
projects, but it was selected over bigger, more established competitors.
Despite delays at Town Park, Mastermind and an affiliated company have
found time to work on other jobs, including a strip club, a private home
owned by Aluko’s company and another owned by the head of the public
agency funding the renovations.
City officials insist the end result — beautiful condos
fit for the cover of a glossy real estate brochure — will be worth it.
“We will cement our legacy with what we do here,” said Clarence Woods III,
the $149,000-a-year executive director of the Southeast Overtown Park West
Community Redevelopment Agency.
Woods says permitting problems and the unexpected discovery of asbestos
significantly slowed down work and inflated costs. Yet he believes
Mastermind will meet a mid-2018 deadline to finish the project under a
contract that — despite public representations that work would take two
years — allowed 40 months from start to finish.
But he’s antsy. The redevelopment agency has given Mastermind until the end
of May to finish three more buildings and move roughly two dozen families
back home. It now acknowledges Mastermind “under-budgeted” part of the work
and will likely need more money from the public to complete the job,
although Woods said $4 million is too much to ask.
Mastermind, meanwhile, was so hard-up for cash in February that it needed a
funding advance from the CRA in order to speed up work and pay laborers.
“As we have previously discussed, every day that tenants are out of their
units represents a cost that is above our budget for the relocation portion
of the project,” a CRA architect wrote in a Feb. 22 memo.
Woods admits the redevelopment agency rushed Mastermind into the job in
order to get work moving. But he blamed the contractor for failing to alert
CRA officials that the initial budget wouldn’t stretch far enough. At one
point, the construction site resembled a “ghost town” because Mastermind
couldn’t afford a big-enough crew, Woods said.
Not long ago, Woods said, he threatened to pull a roughly $3 million
construction bond posted to guarantee its performance unless Mastermind
showed more progress.
That’d be fine by longtime resident William Huggins, 77, a food deliveryman.
“I’ve been here 39 years and it’s been nothing but a rip-off!” he said of
the slow-moving rehab project that has barely touched his second-floor unit.
Gaps in brand-new window frames — replaced months ago during an initial
stage of renovation but not yet properly sealed by workers — invite swarms
of bugs into the moldy interior of his apartment. The problem is so
overwhelming that Huggins sleeps with five cans of bug spray next to his
bed. Insects crawl over him at night.
“Sometimes, you pull back the covers and there’s roaches there,” Huggins
said. “This here is what you call survival.”
It’s not common for taxpayers to spend millions in public money renovating
private homes. But Town Park Plaza North is an important constituency in a
neighborhood owed a debt by government, which drove an interstate through
Overtown’s core in the 1960s and then ignored the collateral damage.
The 169-unit complex was one of three Town Park neighborhoods built in the
early 1970s with federal funding and fashioned as “cooperatives,” or co-ops,
which allowed residents to pay membership fees to own a share of the
building and live in the units.
Over time, the complex deteriorated as board members resisted raising fees
to pay for maintenance. Eventually, a judge appointed a receiver to save the
community — which converted to condos in 2003 — from total financial
In stepped the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment
Operating under a state law that allows government to capture and reinvest
property tax dollars back into neglected and blighted neighborhoods, the
agency has set aside more than $80 million over the past three years toward
spurring development, commercial projects and housing. In 2009, the CRA
expanded its borders to include all three Town Park communities, setting the
stage a few years down the road for Miami commissioners to allocate millions
Town Park Plaza North would get $15 million in September 2014. By the
following January, crews took the first steps toward replacing roofs and
windows, overhauling water and sewer lines and moving residents out to begin
interior demolition and construction.
"I told Clarence that ‘One day, these people are going to come and thank
you,’” Commissioner and CRA Chairman Keon Hardemon said in 2014 when he and
Miami’s other commissioners selected St. John and Mastermind to run the
“I will tell you — and I probably never said this out loud — but his job
depends on this Town Park stuff … because I know what has happened to this
For Town Park residents living in the three finished buildings, life is
cozy, even if the work took longer than expected.
Ellis Prince, 88, spent nearly one year displaced before moving back in.
He’s delighted with the upgrades. “It’s nice,” said Prince, who first moved
here in 1978.
But many have experienced only frustration.
Enzo Junior, who bought a Town Park North unit in 2015 as construction was
beginning, says shoddy window work during the first phase of the project
kept him from moving into his unit and forced him to rent an apartment while
he waits. Worse, in August he filed a police report after he says he
realized during checkup visits that construction workers were partying in
“There were used condoms and drug paraphernalia. And the only people who
could get into my apartment were the construction workers because they’d put
new locks on,” said Junior, who is now housing another relocated tenant in
his unit, which has yet to undergo extensive renovations.
Up to the job?
The Town Park contract was sought by some of Miami’s premier contractors and
developers, including Related Urban Development Group, which is currently
rebuilding Liberty Square, a massive redevelopment that involves moving
hundreds of families. But Miami commissioners took the advice of a CRA
selection committee and chose Mastermind Construction, a company that had
never attempted a project approaching the complexity of Town Park.
Henry Marines, Town Park’s court-appointed receiver, believes Town Park was
too difficult a project for a small contractor.
“The learning curve was too big,” he said, although he added that Mastermind
— under pressure from all sides — has lately picked up the pace.
The firm has no management trailer on site, and doesn’t even have its own
office — Mastermind’s president, Timothy Smathers, runs the company from his
home in Miami Gardens.
Reached by phone, Smathers said his team is back on schedule. He blamed
delays on St. John not having enough units to relocate families.
“It’s not the size of the project, it’s the relocation where things
happened,” Smathers said. “We couldn’t start construction because there
weren’t units to move people.”
He also believes it would have been easier to simply tear down the aging
complex and build new units.
“I could build a townhouse in 90 days,” he said.
Before Town Park, Mastermind had done a handful of smaller taxpayer-funded
rehab projects in Miami-Dade County, several in conjunction with the St.
John CDC. Over the past five years, the Overtown redevelopment agency has
allocated nearly $2 million to several minor rehabs involving Smathers and a
partner, Carlos Rolle.
Mastermind’s jobs in the private sector have included work at the Foxxy Lady
strip club in Liberty City, according to public records. But some of the
company’s other clients reveal a surprising overlap with the taxpayer-funded
project at Town Park.
Last year, the company performed $39,000 in interior work and roofing on an
aging three-bedroom Miami Gardens house. The owner? A company controlled by
Woods, the CRA director.
Woods insists that no “blurring of the lines” took place between his private
and public lives. He showed a reporter canceled checks and receipts to prove
he didn’t receive a discount, saying he hired the company only for
“I’m not hiding that. I make no apologies,” Woods said, although he added
the home renovation ran behind schedule, too.
“In hindsight, would I do it again?” he said. “Probably not.”
That’s not the only example.
Smathers’ business partner, Carlos Rolle, whose company did engineering work
on the Town Park renovation, has also performed work for Aluko, the head of
the St. John CDC.
Public records show that in 2014 Aluko hired Rolle’s company as a contractor
for a new two-story home in Kendall. The land alone is valued at almost
$400,000, according to property records.
Rolle did not respond to messages. Aluko, a former city of Miami executive
in charge of construction projects, said he hired the company only to pull
permits, and is paying full price.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Aluko said. “Everything is above board.”
Aluko has seamlessly slid into the world of nonprofit development after his
career as a public servant ended in controversy.
In 2010, he was forced to resign from a $196,000-a-year gig overseeing
Miami’s capital improvements program after telling superiors that his
employees were inflating prices. Miami’s then-city manager said the problems
were already known, but Aluko claimed he was a whistle-blower, and
eventually the city approved a $20,000 settlement.
Following his ouster, Aluko became president of St. John Community
Development Corporation. Since 2011, the nonprofit, affiliated with an
Overtown Baptist church, has been busy thanks to taxpayers — between 2011
and 2015, it garnered nearly $12 million in direct government grants,
according to public tax documents.
During that time, St. John has also hired Aluko’s private firm, Odua Group,
for “construction management” on a slew of projects. Between 2011 and 2015,
Odua, which also works for other clients, earned more than $900,000 from the
nonprofit, tax records show.
On Town Park, invoices show the CRA paid Odua $5,500 per unit for
“relocation services” — even though the original contract never mentions
Aluko’s company. His firm had been paid $217,900 directly by the CRA as of
the end of April, but that changed after Marines, the receiver for Town
Park, complained that Odua was not named in the relocation contract. Now the
CRA pays St. John, which in turn pays Odua, an arrangement that still leaves
Marines scratching his head.
“I don’t know what Odua is,” he said. “All it does is make money.”
Aluko said Odua Group has helped oversee relocation efforts through a
consulting contract with St. John, and splits a percentage of the relocation
fee with the CDC. He declined to say how much taxpayer money Odua has earned
“All that is private information,” he said. “That shouldn’t be disclosed to
Is the costly process of relocation even necessary?
Todd Jay Jonas, an architect who guided the process of converting Town Park
to condos, says no. He drafted plans calling for homeowners to move into
vacant units at Town Park and then into whole new structures built from the
ground up on the complex’s plentiful land. But his development team wasn’t
chosen for the project.
“All that relocation was pointless,” Jonas said.
Aluko defended the relocation plan during an interview at St. John’s
Overtown office. The plan he submitted in March of 2015 recommended moving
just two buildings and 15 households at a time for three to four months to
keep costs down and construction manageable.
He also distances himself from construction woes, even though in a proposal
for the renovation his firm touted itself as a savvy construction project
manager. But like Woods, he believes the project will finish on the
three-year schedule laid out by its contract, or at least close to it.
“It irks me to know that what’s out there on the street is it was meant to
be a two-year project” he said.
But the two-year time-line many residents cite in their complaints about
slow progress didn’t come out of thin air. The CRA’s own annual report for
2014 said the renovations would take between 18 and 24 months. And
Mastermind’s community-outreach team called the job a 24-month project in
documents filed with the agency.
Among its duties on the project, Odua was paid to complete surveys of each
unit to find out what occupants needed in order to relocate. The company
earned $550, or 10 percent of the relocation fee, for each query.
The forms are supposed to be signed by interviewees.
But in a stack of invoices to the CRA, Odua submitted an interview form with
Jaime Perkul, a businessman who owns a unit but lives in Argentina. Shown
the document featuring Odua’s logo and his purported signature, Perkul
“Nobody has ever called me,” Perkul said from Argentina. “I didn’t sign
that. I don’t even know who that company is.”
Aluko is adamant that the call took place, but admits Perkul did not sign
the document. He says Odua wasn’t paid for interviews with the landlords,
but rather their tenants.
“His name in the signature line was in error,” Aluko added. “It wasn’t meant
for billing purposes. Those somehow made it into our billing.”
In the meantime, Town Park residents want work to speed up — or in some
cases simply begin.
Adrian Madriz, a housing activist who is currently renting his Town Park
unit to a relocated neighbor in a building that has yet to undergo
renovation, says trying to keep his property in liveable condition has been
Madriz says problems like a “severe rat infestation,” a rundown air
conditioner and a broken toilet persist because of the web of agencies now
involved. He said simply fixing his toilet has been difficult because he
needs to shut off the water to the entire building but can’t get anybody on
the phone to make it happen.
Madriz, who works for a nonprofit called Smash the Slumlords, says he almost
feels like one himself because his tenant — relocated from a building under
renovation — is living in such poor conditions.
“This is a quagmire,” he said. “Every time you try to get them to do
anything they’re all pointing fingers at each other. Everybody is blameless