Either Norman Braman is a people's hero, fighting the good fight with bullhorns and placards, or he's a slick luxury car salesman trying to pull down Miami's grandest public works plan in decades – part of which might cut into his sales of Hondas and Beemers.
Whatever his motivation, Mr. Braman, former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, has enough clout to yank the city into court this week in what promises to be a bitter fight over Miami's urban core and a test of its sharp social and economic divide.
At stake is an unusual $3 billion "mega deal" to build a tunnel to the Port of Miami, construct a ballpark in Little Havana, create a new park at Bicentennial Park, build a trolley system, and pay off nearly half a billion dollars in unexpected public debt from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Biscayne Boulevard.
Using taxpayer money for ambitious renewal projects is always controversial. Braman is suing the city and county in Miami Dade Circuit Court for misuse of public money, but he says he'll drop the suit if the city and county let the issue go to a voter referendum.
"This project is really about the city branding itself as the crossroads of the Americas, keeping the Miami brand up there ... with other communities in the United States and also in Central and Latin America, where it competes with places like Panama City," says Jim Murley, an urban affairs expert at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale.
Stadiums, tunnels, symphony halls – they're all in the arsenal of the modern city planner.
But with Americans increasingly suspicious of large-scale giveaways to corporations and sports teams – especially in a city like Miami, where one stadium built at taxpayer expense currently stands empty – civic leaders are looking for new mechanisms to get bulldozers moving. "Bundling" projects for political expediency is becoming more common for cities trying to build favorable buzz, experts say.
"Folks supportive of the park may not be supportive of the tunnel or the baseball stadium, but this is a way to sort of build consensus ... to get these kinds of large projects approved," says Frank Nero, president of the Beacon Council, a Miami business group. "The governmental entities that did this should be commended for being creative."
For his part, Braman calls the joint city-county plan a "shell game" that pits struggling blue-collar Miami against the city's wealthy subsets that make it the Monaco of Alligator Country. One online commentator ripped into the plan as a "tyrannical monstrosity."
Miamians have good reason to be suspicious, says Michael Lewis, editor of Miami Today.
"They threw everything they could think of into this thing to see what sticks," says Mr. Lewis. "Everyone holds their nose and votes for a package. It's a little like bundling bad mortgages together and selling them. Sound familiar?"
As the city gives concessions to developers and sports teams (the proposed project includes a new stadium for the Marlins), critics say, basics fall apart. A city pool closed after Miami didn't have money to pay a lifeguard. A glorious downtown fountain became the failed launchpad for tethered advertising balloons.
"We're great builders in Miami," says Mr. Lewis. "We're not great maintainers."
Meanwhile, the wealth gap in Miami is among the widest of any US city. The middle class makes up only 15 percent of Miami, and the median income in the city is less than half the national median.
At a protest Saturday on Watson Island, about 70 people, including Braman, made bullhorn speeches and waved "Megaplan or Megascam?" signs. It was a symbolic spot to make some noise. The plan would expand the definition of blight to include the mostly empty, but hardly blighted, Watson Island in a new redevelopment district, eligible to receive tax revenues.
The megaplan insults those trying to hold onto their homes and lives in a tough economy, says Beverly Stafford, a community activist in the rundown Overtown section of the city. "I'm not against progress, but you've got to do it one step at a time. You don't start throwing things in a mixing bowl and it all comes out like magic."
Proponents point out that no general funds will be used for the project, most of which will be paid for from hotel taxes on tourists. And with construction off 14 percent since last year, and nearly 10,000 construction workers laid off, this is the time to "prime the pump" of the economy, says Mr. Nero of the Beacon Council.
"Politics is the art of giving and taking, and this is a very unique way to cobble together some disparate interests that all had capital requirements and doing it as part of a grand plan," he says.
So far, there's little danger of cooler heads prevailing around the Miami megadeal. For his part, Braman, the activist auto dealer, says he simply wants to see the residents of Miami and Dade County at the helm of this eccentric South Florida megalopolis.
"There will be no settlement without giving people the right to vote," Braman told the crowd on Watson Island on Saturday. He took the stand in Miami Dade Circuit Court on Monday.